Alumni Spotlight: Trevor Watkins ‘14 & ‘16

Since the 2010s, Trevor Watkins ‘14 & ‘16 has been researching the role artificial intelligence (AI) plays in society. As a teaching and outreach librarian at George Mason University, Watkins is integrating artificial intelligence literacy into courses for students, and he is also leading or is involved in national and international AI projects.

“AI is creating new opportunities for industries,” Watkins said. “It’s important students obtain knowledge regarding this industry because job markets may want applicants with a skill set in AI or AI tools.”

Watkins graduated from Kent State University with master’s degrees in library science and user experience (UX). Both programs allowed him to understand the importance of information gathering and technology’s role in library science.

“My UX master’s degree enhanced experiences in web design and software development,” Watkins said. “The library science degree gave me a holistic outlook on the components of public and academic libraries.” 

Alumnus Trevor Watkins sits at a computer terminal

During his master's programs, Watkins received mentorship from iSchool professor Dr. Marcia Zeng. Dr. Zeng was instrumental in Watkins’ growth as a student and professional.

“She encouraged me to pursue scholarship, write articles and attend conferences,” Watkins said. “She also gave me a lot of advice regarding professional development.”

Watkins and Dr. Zeng’s relationship remains close. Dr. Zeng often sends Watkins new opportunities that support his interests in the relationship between AI and library science.

“Dr. Zeng is aware of my research interests, and she constantly sends me links to upcoming conferences, resources and videos of talks in my area,” Watkins said.

Dr. Zeng’s prolific impact on Watkins has also inspired him to take on a mentorship role for his students at George Mason University.

“I provide mentorship in that capacity when I’m teaching or have class,” Watkins said. “I want to do the same thing that she’s done for me and continues to do.”

With a strong computing and information background, experience as a practitioner in the IT industry and over 17 years of teaching at the academic level. Watkins has always been drawn to this kind of work. However, he was particularly drawn to this industry to increase Black representation.

“Black people are underrepresented in the library and information science field,” Watkins said. “I figured that it was my responsibility to transition to this field to contribute and provide a different perspective.”

As a result, Watkins is teaching about the intersection of library science and AI at conferences across the nation and internationally. He hopes that everyone can understand and appreciate the importance of incorporating different perspectives in all aspects of their work.

“If you’re building any kind of application or AI tool, it is important to have members on your team who represent the people you are building the tool for. This can include members of the team who are directly involved with the creation of the tool and those who will be testing it,” Watkins said.

In 2018, Watkins traveled to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions World Library and Information Conference. At the conference, he presented a paper on how librarians can address roadblocks affecting distance learning and non-traditional students.

Alumnus Trevor Watkins speaking at conference
Watkins in Kuala Lumpur presenting an informational poster

“Besides the conference, which was amazing, the warm welcome we received from the people in Malaysia was something that I hadn’t experienced before,” Watkins said.

The last five years of the AI landscape has changed dramatically due to rapidly changing technology. Watkins believes that this will only benefit future AI software and our society for years to come.

‘I want to build tools and things for the greater good in helping out society,” Watkins said. “There are so many benefits of using it, but we must educate the general public on how to use it ethically.” 

Watkins emphasized that technological advancements will also help future information professionals develop language models and other software. Because of this, students interested in this field must continue to keep up with new advancements.

“You must gain that knowledge through practice. Class projects, personal projects outside of the class, or whatever you are working on helps,” Watkins said. “If you are using or wish to use AI in your projects, make sure your professor is okay with this and that you don’t violate any policies that the institution put in place.”