FROM MATH TEACHER TO GLOBAL PROBLEM SOLVER
Matthew Simonson ’95, returned to Lowell in January to speak with 6th grade humanities classes about the nature of social science research. As a PhD student in network science at Northeastern University in Boston, MA, Matthew has traveled all over the world conducting research. In this interview, he shares highlights of his current work, including fascinating projects in Uganda and India.
Not long ago, you shared news that you were in Uganda doing fieldwork for your PhD. Can you describe that work?
The goal of my project was to understand what sorts of people are more likely to form friendships across ethnic lines. Kampala, like many African capitals, brings together migrants from villages with only one tribe and plunges them into a cosmopolitan milieu with dozens of tribes. I was curious whether this mixing would lead to strife or if it would foster cross-ethnic friendships. For the qualitative part of my work, I traveled through the city with a Ugandan research assistant interviewing local residents, nearly all of whom assured me that in spite of the city’s many challenges, they had friends from multiple tribes and got along well with everyone. For the quantitative piece, I supervised a staff of 15 Ugandan enumerators—mainly college students—who canvassed two neighborhoods on foot with computer tablets, asking residents to name five neighbors with whom they socialized. I then statistically analyzed this data, mapping the entire web of social connections, and found while people were more likely to befriend someone from their own tribe, cross-ethnic ties were plentiful. In fact, my evidence suggests that Kampala’s diverse urban environment may play a key role: the longer you live there, the higher a percentage of your friends are from outside your tribe.
In your note you also mentioned that you saw and ate cichlids while in Uganda. What do you remember about cichlids from your time at Lowell?
I have fond memories of learning about cichlids from John Bijarney in the math/science room on the second floor of the Decatur Street building. My favorite was the petrotilapia, a beautiful brightly colored fish referenced in John’s “Lake Malawi” song: “Some of the divers couldn’t be happier / than when filming a petrotilapia.” I was singing the entire song to myself from memory in Uganda last summer, as well as the song about Bubba, the big fat cichlid “with a bump on his head” that lived in “a broken flower pot” at school. However, I’ve been a huge geography and maps buff since I was little, so at Lowell I was more interested in learning about the African Great Lakes and the countries they bordered than the fish themselves. Thus, when I found myself on the shores of Lake Victoria last summer, it felt like I had reached some sort of mythical milestone on a subconscious, lifelong quest. When you’re a child, you learn about a lot of faraway amazing places—the North Pole, the Sahara Desert, the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids—and they stick in the back of your mind for years almost like fairy tales, so that one day, when you encounter them face-to-face, there’s this rush of excitement like you’ve stepped into a picture book, and the places and people have suddenly become real.
What can you tell us about your most recent research?
I was in Uganda in the summer of 2016. Since then, my work has focused on understanding the role of networks in ethnic conflict and international development. First, I have a project analyzing the road networks of various African countries to measure the extent to which roads from the capital to outlying areas allow governments to exert control over their populations and clamp down on rebellions and protests. My collaborators and I have digitized 60 years of Michelin road maps of the African continent, allowing us to investigate how these road networks have evolved over time and how changes in road quality and accessibility match up with outbreaks of violence.
Second, I’m part of a team of geographers and economists conducting an experiment aimed at expanding access to family planning in rural India through social networks. Similar to a drug trial or psychology experiment, we are comparing a “treatment group” to a “control group” to assess the effectiveness of our treatment, which in this case is a voucher to a nearby family planning clinic. Some women will be getting a voucher just for themselves while others will get two vouchers—one for themselves and one for a friend they can choose to bring. Our hope is that the bring-a-friend strategy will help women overcome the stigma and fear that surround family planning in India and help encourage them to give modern family planning methods a try. By leveraging these women’s preexisting social networks, health workers in the future may be able to have a far greater impact than if they tried to persuade each woman one-on-one. Ultimately, I hope I can use field experiments like this to figure out the most effective ways to use social networks to prevent ethnic conflict, civil war, and genocide, but you’ll have to check back in me in a few years.
Are there any particular life experiences, academic courses, or people that inspired you to pursue a PhD in network science?
I used to teach high school geometry, and I’d always start off the year teaching about the mathematics of networks so that students could see some applications of geometry in the real world. For instance, during the genocide in Darfur, I’d give them a map of the road network in Sudan and ask them to determine which roads UN peacekeepers should protect in order to provide an escape route for the maximum number of refugees. When I decided I was ready to switch careers, I was trying to find a way to combine my math skills with my interest in international conflict, when I suddenly stumbled upon this Network Science PhD program at Northeastern University—the first of its kind—that dealt with exactly the types of problems I’d been giving to my students for years. I had no idea until then that the material I’d been teaching had evolved into its own field!
When do you expect to complete your PhD program?
A good social scientist doesn’t give exact predictions; we give confidence intervals (that is, a range within which we’re 90% or 95% certain the answer lies). So, I’ll say spring 2021, plus or minus two semesters. Hopefully minus.