‘Social scientists play an important role in the fight against Covid in Ireland’

9 Sep 2020

Fernandos Kredgie Ongolly is based at University College Dublin. Image: Fernandos Kredgie Ongolly/IUA

Fernandos Kredgie Ongolly, a medical anthropologist based at UCD, is trying to see how public policies have changed the way we live during Covid-19.

Fernandos Kredgie Ongolly graduated with a BA in anthropology in 2014 and an MA in medical anthropology in 2019 from the University of Nairobi.

In 2017, he moved to the Centre for Clinical Research at the Kenya Medical Research Institute to work for a project scaling up HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis medication in Kenya as a project social scientist and technical adviser. In January 2020, he then moved to Ireland to work as a research assistant at University College Dublin under the Misfires project.

This move was supported by the Euraxess Hosting Agreement Scheme, which enables approved research enterprises to recruit experts from outside the European Economic Area for their R&D departments in Ireland.

‘An anthropologist’s work is critical in understanding people’s ways of life and their holistic behaviours’

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I would say I was becoming a social scientist in the making without my knowledge and maybe a great qualitative researcher at the age of five. I always wanted to create solutions for our local community and looked at myself as that person who will grow to come up with inventions that will solve most problems that we faced at that time.

This motivated me to work hard in school and always strive to be the best and my parents worked hard to make sure I got good education. I was always bothered with the fact that people in my community died of diseases that were preventable and curable, such as malaria, and I always wanted to find out why.

Though I did not make it to medical school, I still got the opportunity to study in the highly coveted University of Nairobi. I enrolled for anthropology – a course that was less respected by people in Kenya – but I clung on to always become the best student in my class.

I would say this was a breakthrough of my research career. Studying anthropology made me look at human behaviour from a holistic perspective and helped me answer a lot of my ‘why’ questions about my community.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

I work in a team of six experienced researchers with diverse backgrounds and expertise under an European Research Council-funded project called Misfires, led by Prof Susi Geiger from the UCD College of Business. Our overall goal is to look at market failures and design in health. Our team engages in various types of research including studies on HIV prevention technologies and advocacy.

Currently we are working on a pan-European study on Covid-19 where we are trying to decipher how people in Ireland have responded to the policies put in place by the Government to contain the spread of the virus, as well as how they are adapting and coping with their current life during the pandemic.

This was a very interesting and timely longitudinal study in collaboration with eight other European countries (Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the UK) led by Universität Wien.

Joining this study team was important for us to contribute to science from the perspective of people’s lived experience. Our acceptance was based on the fact that social scientists, just like clinical researchers, play an important role in the fight against Covid-19 in Ireland.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

An anthropologist’s work is critical in understanding people’s ways of life and their holistic behaviours.

In my practice as a medical anthropologist, I have observed a lot of attention and credit being given to clinical researchers who work in labs on various health interventions, such as new vaccines and treatment, at the expense of the contributions of social scientists.

As much as their outputs may be tangible and visible, social scientists play a critical role of making sure these products are accepted by consumers. Most technologies – not only in the medical field – target humans as their primary consumers either directly or indirectly, which makes it important to understand the behaviour of these consumers.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

Post-Covid-19, I foresee a big shift in the way people work and we are focusing on social science research to understand the new pandemic. Companies will need to understand how a change of lifestyle can be transferred into their current business models.

It will be important to have in-depth qualitative studies on the advantages and disadvantages that come with remote working. This includes what is needed to properly execute remote working, the challenges that staff face, whether or not we really need physical offices in the future and many more issues.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

The biggest challenge I face is working in teams that would want to push me into their disciplines, forgetting that I also matter. Sometimes you end up collaborating with other scientists in the physical and medical sciences and a big conflict arises in so far as your thought processes are applied.

They will forget your role as a behavioural scientist and want to push you to behave like a doctor, mathematician or engineer. In this way, if you are not careful, you may fail to apply your social science skills in creating solutions and end up leaning to their areas.

This will have an eventual effect on the product produced by the team, because it will lack the social aspect.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research? How would you address them?

Back in Kenya, like all over the world, there is a group of people who think anthropological research belongs to museums and historical sites. This misconception has made corporates have a blind spot for anthropologists as behavioural scientists who can greatly contribute to their businesses in understanding their consumers’ cultures.

However, of late, this has changed and many companies are accommodating anthropologists and other social scientists in their corporations. This problem can be resolved by more social scientists – and not only anthropologists – coming into contemporary behavioural research that produces visible results. The more output, the more appreciation. People like tangible results!

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

I would like that more social science research is conducted on people’s online behaviour. We live in an era where most people have moved their interaction to social media and other online platforms. Some people do not visit doctors, but they will use search engines to research about what they think they are suffering from and order medication online.

In my opinion, online life is the next frontier in anthropological research.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing editorial@siliconrepublic.com with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.