Mathematician Peter Fennell’s pioneering work on how information, behaviour, and trends spread through social networks could ultimately help influence positive human behaviour.
Mr Fennell, from Ballincollig, in Co Cork, was recently granted a prestigious fellowship, giving him the opportunity to work in any institution in the US.
There were nine recipients of the $200,000 fellowship, only three of which went to applicants from outside of the US. He was the only successful Irish applicant.
During his PhD, Mr Fennell studied mathematically how phenomena spread through networks — or groups of interconnected units — using tools such as mathematical modelling, calculus, statistics, and linear algebra. “Now I am applying these methodologies to study different types of spreading behaviour in social networks,” he said.
Just weeks into his fellowship, he has found interesting applications for his work.
“I had a meeting last week with people involved in social work. The reason their work is relevant to me, and vice versa, is because they are working with networks of homeless people here.
“The people are interconnected through friendship and peer relationships, and the challenge for the social workers is how can they influence these networks?
“Many of the people in this network have addiction problems, so the social workers want to spread a good behaviour, like rehabilitation. We have to examine how to do that in the most effective way.
“People are influenced by their connections, so if you can spread a behaviour in a social network it can be more effective than trying to introduce it from the outside.”