Gladys Ndagire: Engineer-anthropologist

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Friday, May 24, 2013
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2013

One of the benefits of my decision to double concentrate in engineering and anthropology is the ease with which this choice flows into conversation. Over the last two years, I’ve noticed that no one asks me how or why I came up with such a quirky combination because it is assumed, inaccurately, that I must have put a lot of thought into it.

Instead, I am often asked to explain what an engineer with an anthropology degree or an anthropologist with an engineering degree could do after graduation. I answer that they could become an analyst in the finance industry, but this response fails to encompass the diverse benefits of concentrating in two distinctively different fields. To come to a nearly satisfactory answer, I spent the last year of my Brown career looking for experiences and people at the nexus of engineering and anthropology both within my curriculum and in Providence.

My exploration began on a somewhat dramatic note at the Trinity Repertory Company theater downtown during the eighth Business Innovation Factory last September. There, I spent two days engaging in conversations with some of the world’s most innovative and successful designers from companies such as Zappos, Intel and IDEO. Though all of these companies leveraged different engineering fields and served different clients, ethnography was a common theme in the stories of their success. Ethnography is anthropology-speak for qualitative research geared towards understanding human culture in different social contexts.

The Business Innovation Factory made me realize that I had to take a class on ethnography and another on engineering design to experience engineering in a humanistic way. By sheer serendipity, the anthropology department was offering a class on ethnographic methods, and my engineering professor decided to co-teach his class with a Rhode Island School of Design industrial design professor.

Last semester, I learned that a table is more than four legs and a surface, as my team and I interviewed more than 30 people about their experiences with hotel room tables. Our research translated into structural analysis that aligned aesthetics produced by the table’s material properties with static calculations that recognized the innovative ways that a 150-pound person could use a hotel table. By the end of that project, I had successfully experienced my first attempt at user-centered design and discovered that this was the calling of engineer-anthropologists: the answer that I had been searching for.

Like anthropologist-engineers, user-centered design is limitless in its applications and valuable in unleashing the transformative power of innovators, since it involves practicing empathy to uncover the needs of societies and then creating products or services to meet them. The beauty of this principle lies in its applicability. For example, last month my Group Independent Study Project team launched a $50 million impact investing fund alongside Social Venture Partners Rhode Island after researching and aligning the needs of New England’s communities and investors. And I applied those same principles to develop puppetry therapy, which involves using puppets to mediate conflicts, with my RISD DESINE-lab team.

Double concentrating in engineering and anthropology has taught me the obvious: Humans are at the center of every design and understanding cultures will serve you well no matter what you decide to make.

 Gladys Ndagire is forever grateful to Deb Mills-Scofield ’82 for helping her get why engineers should be anthropologists.