Assistant Professor Praveen Kumar, PhD, who joined the BCSSW faculty this past September, works at the intersection of environmental inequities, poverty, and global health. In this Q&A with Innovate, Kumar discusses his diverse background working across consulting, engineering, and social work; his transdisciplinary approach to research projects; and his expectations for teaching and inquiry at Boston College.
BCSSW: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us today, Professor Kumar, and welcome to Boston College. You have a very interesting professional background. Let’s begin with some insight into why you decided to pursue a PhD in social work in the first place.
Praveen Kumar: It’s true that I have a diverse background. I have a bachelor’s degree in engineering, and then I completed a master’s in social entrepreneurship and management. Following my master’s I worked as a management consultant for KPMG. Most of my clients at KPMG were international development organizations like USAID, DFID (UK), the UN agencies, the Stockholm Environment Institute, and the World Bank, to name a few. I also worked with the governments of India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, and few African nations as well. So I have been in the international development sector for quite some time.
While I was advising these organizations, it quickly became evident that the work I was doing would be greatly complemented by pursing a research-based endeavor, and this prompted me to get a PhD. The Brown School, of course, has one of the best international PhD programs, and its research program is transdisciplinary in nature. My own research area cuts across environmental health, poverty, and global health, so the program at the Brown School was a perfect fit. While there, I was able to work closely with both the engineering and medical schools on research projects. I’m looking forward to forging similar relationships with faculty members from the various schools here at Boston College, too.
(Check out this video to see Kumar present on a research project that engaged Washington University’s social work, engineering, and medical schools. Kumar worked with BCSSW Dean Gautam Yadama, formerly a professor at the Brown School, to deploy cookstoves in rural India.)
BCSSW: Talk more about how you envision taking advantage of similar transdisciplinary opportunities here at Boston College.
PK: I’m off and running with regards to my research—currently I’m co-investigator on an NIH-funded grant where BC School of Social Work is working with Harvard Medical School and the Johns Hopkins School of Environmental Sciences, examining the household organization factors and network drivers which led to the adoption of cleaner cooking fuels in India. Another project that I’m leading is studying the effects of the distribution of solar lamps in rural India—we’ve signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IITB) to work on this project. It’s exciting to be able to work across disciplines to solve a massive problem like poverty on the Subcontinent: The engineering team at IITB is coming together with BCSSW in order to understand the educational, economic, and social impacts of the dissemination of these solar lamps.
I’m really excited, too, about the possibilities for the Schiller Institute for Integrated Science and Society. This institute itself is a physical manifestation of how BC as a university is moving ahead in integrating the natural sciences with social sciences for the larger good. A number of faculty members from this school and others at BC will play a large role in this institute, and I am lreally looking forward to be a part of this.
BCSSW: Much of your research is based in systems sciences. Give us a brief overview of this innovative methodology for addressing social problems.
PK: Systems sciences gets at the complexity of solving problems that are not linear in nature. A lot of times, people, even researchers, see cause and effect as a linear relationship. For example, if I disseminate solar lamps to the rural poor in India, I can expect to see an educational improvement in kids. But in our complex world, more often than not, things are not linear. There are different systems and subsystems within a community that interact with each other to produce impact. These dynamic subsystems must be taken into account.
One approach in systems sciences that I employ is community-based system dynamics, which involves a computational modeling technique that is used to illustrate and understand complex systems. In particular, modeling system dynamics helps to understand the relationship between the underlying structure of feedback mechanisms and the system behavior produced by those mechanisms. These models seek to understand the dynamic behavior of communities by exploring changes in individual subsystems, and how these changes can impact the bigger system on the whole.
Another approach in systems sciences that I undertake is ego network analysis, sometimes also known as personal network analysis. In communities, sometimes, the behavioral outcome of an individual is not always an isolated function of the individual’s attributes and characteristics. The decision is constantly impacted by the strength and composition of the characteristics (such as race, gender, social class, social capital of the people) that an individual is connected to. Understanding and analyzing these personal relationships can provide key behavioral insights into individuals and communities. For example, in our project introducing cleaner cooking fuels, we are exploring how gender-based personal networks of women and men impact uptake of cleaner cooking systems in these resource poor communities. In fact, this study will be first in India to undertake a gender-based ego-network approach to explore uptake of cleaner cooking systems in poor communities.
Network analysis has been effectively implemented in a variety of international contexts such as the distribution of contraceptives and mosquito nets in Africa, and the spreading of awareness on the importance of using sanitation systems.
You’ve obviously made a seamless transition to Boston College in terms of continuing your research. Are you also teaching any courses yet?
PK: This semester I’m teaching two sections of a course on social innovation. For the beginning of the course, we will explore the theoretical aspects of innovation, then follow with the more applied aspects of it later in the semester. There are, of course, a number of social innovative approaches that different nonprofit and for-profit agencies are employing in the United States and around the world, many of which I was working within during my time in consulting. We will delve into a number of successful and unsuccessful case studies to expand the envelope of critical thinking for these students so that they may become knowledgeable about the trajectories incorporated in undertaking social innovation. Essentially, we’ll address topics which will include concepts such as: how do we do social innovation within an agency or even independently? What are the tools and skills needed? How can we critically analyze cases of successful and unsuccessful social innovation; especially form a social work perspective? What might be the pitfalls while engaging in the process of social innovation?
Not that you probably have time for much else beyond your extensive research and teaching responsibilities, but what are some of the things that you like to do in your free time?
PK: At the moment, adjusting to Boston driving and the cold are two of my major projects! I’m not totally a stranger to colder weather as we did see freezing temperatures in St. Louis, but the brutalization of the winter in Boston is taking some getting used to. Also, I’m actually a relaxed Mid-western driver, so it’s a bit crazy in here. I think that I am probably the most honked-at person here in Boston over the past few months! Nevertheless, Boston has much to offer. It is an old city, and seems as a melting pot of a historical character with a cosmopolitan vibe. I like doing street photography and trying different restaurants here. I’m really enjoying getting to know the city, though, in all seriousness. I spent most of my adult life in Mumbai, and to a great extent, Boston reminds me of Mumbai. They both are cosmopolitan and international, so I really feel at home here.