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M.S.W. Grad Collaborates with Professor on AI Research


Barbara Pohl is a 2023 graduate of Fordham GSS’s Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) program. She has recently collaborated with GSS Associate Professor Lauri Goldkind, Ph.D., on two research publications. The first is titled “Social Work and the Platform Economy: A Labor Process Theory Analysis” and was published in Social Service Review. The second is “AI Folktales,” a book chapter published in the Research Handbook on Artificial Intelligence and Communication. 

While an M.S.W. student at GSS, Pohl served under Goldkind as a research assistant in Fordham GSS’s Committee for the Advancement of Research and Scholarship (CARS) program. 

Why did you choose social work for your graduate studies?

I have experience in the history of science, where I was doing a lot of work on the history of social work. And it became clear in the process of doing research and writing in that space, that there were a lot of academics who were talking about bringing in the voices of BIPOC folks or underprivileged folks without actually bringing those voices into the fold. So I figured I had to actually go to do the work of social work, to actually make the information that was supposed to benefit a specific population reach the ears and mouths of people who could already share this experience.

So I came to social work from studying the history of social work and feeling like I needed to make a difference by doing that work as well. 

Was studying technology and artificial intelligence’s impacts on social work on your radar when coming to school and entering the CARS program?

Dr. Goldkind was interested in technology and human services, and I have a degree in the history of science, but my undergraduate degree is in science and technology studies, which is directly linked to many of the theories and thinkers that she was already engaging with. So it was a really easy transition back to thinking about how technology and human services intersect. I started helping her with qualitative research on AI, but quickly we both discussed a shared interest in telemental health, and she looped me into some projects that she and another collaborator, Lea Wolf, were working on in the space of telemental health, and it kind of took off from there.

How did Dr. Goldkind serve as a mentor to you throughout your time in the program?

Dr. Goldkind is very focused on making sure that my ideas, contributions, and words matter. She’s very open and helps me nurture those interests and commitments, which isn’t always so common in other spaces in academia. She puts the needs and interests of students first. 

Why is that mentorship so valuable for M.S.W. students?

I think mentorship is invaluable in any field of study, but in social work, it’s incredibly important. Often, if you decide to go into research and you decide to pursue an academic track, you will need a mentor to help you identify your own research interest, where you seek to contribute within the field, and how you see teaching fitting into your schedule. 

I’m currently practicing as a psychotherapist. It remains important to have a mentor like Dr. Goldkind because she can remind you of the value of your work and your contributions. You can hold on to that reminder when you go into a space where, often, your emotional labor, or much of your labor, is made to be invisible. It’s only with a mentor that you learn to feel empowered, to see the challenges that you will face, and to figure out how to advocate for yourself.

Do you think telehealth services are a net good, bad, or neutral for the client?

Telehealth began to create access for people, say, in rural communities who couldn’t otherwise access it. That access opens a world of doors for clients. That is a net benefit. However, there are situations where, for the client, telemental health can be challenging. If, for example, you are experiencing gender-based violence and you’re receiving telemental health services in your home, but the perpetrator of this violence is listening and controlling what you’re saying, it can actually be challenging to create that culture of safety. So it’s it’s a “both and” answer. 

What about the provider?

I think again, the answer is, it’s both. Dr. Goldkind was specifically working with providers trying to build up their private practices through online platforms. Telehealth within these platforms offers that flexibility, which is valuable to many individuals. On the flip side, on some of these platforms, the challenge becomes that people are texting you at all hours, and that may or may not be how you wish to provide your therapy, and it can be hard to create boundaries.

Technology is never good or bad. It’s an exciting research field. Dr. Goldkind has been successful in pointing out the adaptations that providers need to make. All of the research papers we’ve worked on within the space of telemental health together suggest that there are some positive dimensions to it and challenges that, with the right resources and critical thinking, can be addressed. It’s just a question of having that conversation. And so her research is just putting that conversation on the map. 

What is “AI Folklore,” and what did that paper hope to explore?

We were looking at how different people understand AI. Every individual has a vague sense of what they can or can’t do with AI. And they’re creating these stories about AI, and there’s not necessarily the knowledge or comfort with it. 

The paper used the individuals’ answers to get a sense of what their thoughts and feelings were around AI – their fears, and what they thought the benefits were. Some people are very optimistic; other people have these dystopian fears because they’re learning it through the media. They’re watching television shows. They’re learning about it through news articles, maybe, that they’re encountering. But many of these individuals didn’t necessarily have an AI course in school, so everyone’s creating their own stories about AI. 

So what do you think? Is AI an exponential benefit, or will it steal my job and take over the earth?

I am a Luddite who is very interested in technology. So I am always suspicious of how ChatGPT and other technologies can be used. There’s a ton of research about how our biases are actually being built into algorithms that affect our lives. So I think we have to always be cautious and careful about the ways that these different AI and other technologies continue to reproduce some of the systemic inequalities that already exist.

What can social workers in the field today do to stay updated on trends in AI and how it will continue to impact the profession?

It’s not going to sound terribly profound, but Dr. Goldkind and I do a lot of exchanging of, say, New Yorker articles or Atlantic articles. Reading what the leading thinkers have to say. They’re borrowing from academics, but they’re also getting the opinions of journalists. I would just say, keep reading some of the longer forms of journalism to stay informed and feel comfortable forming your own opinions based on what you’re reading, and never hesitate to go deeper if you feel that the paper trail is leading you there.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.


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