D-MEMP Student Alexander Lavin Makes Forbes “30 Under 30” List

Alexander Lavin,  a student in Duke’s distance Master of Engineering Management Program, was just recognized as being among the top four percent of 15,000 applicants in the science category on the 2016 Forbes “30 Under 30“ list. Lavin is currently researching artificial intelligence and natural language processing at Numenta in California while working his way through the management program.

You say that you are working on natural language processing at Numenta – what does that mean exactly?

Working on natural language processing (NLP) means to develop algorithms that enable computers to process human language toward useful applications. Example applications we have today are mobile assistants and translating webpages. It's arguably the most challenging area of machine learning research. At Numenta, we're using NLP tasks as a testbed to build out our core algorithms, hierarchical temporal memory (HTM). HTM is our theory of neocortex, which we're programming into software to build machine intelligence.

You studied as a “rocket scientist” at Cornell, so why did you make the jump to artificial intelligence?

As you mentioned, my background is in mechanical engineering, specifically for spacecraft, including a master’s degree with Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). While working on a lunar rover at CMU, I started to play around with software and artificial intelligence and I just loved it. I decided to make the career move, studying artificial intelligence textbooks and doing programming projects on my own. After about a year of these studies, I felt confident enough to pursue a job in artificial intelligence research. So I joined Numenta, where I've been for almost 15 months now.

Why did you enroll in an engineering management program, and why Duke’s distance program?

I want my work to make significant impacts, and I want to lead others to do it with me. The Master of Engineering Management Program is designed to help me build and hone the necessary skills. The distance program is ideal. I can immediately apply what I learn in the classroom to my job, and my job can influence what I learn.

I chose the Duke program mainly because the distance program allows me to work in industry while I take classes. I was also attracted to a few specific courses like Commercializing Tech Innovations and IP Law. It’s been a great experience, though free time has been scarce.

How long have you been in the program and what’s your experience been like so far?

I started the program in parallel with CMU back in 2013, and plan on finishing this fall. Overall, it's been a positive experience, particularly getting to know the other students in my distance cohort.

Have you been able to apply anything you’ve learned yet?

Definitely. Most notably emotional intelligence, which has helped me improve both as a manager and personally. I think I've always had good emotional intelligence, but actively improving it has helped me better navigate working relationships, particularly when there's potential conflict.