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MEET DR KAI RUGGERI – SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGIST AND BEHAVIOURAL SCIENTIST  Dr Kai Ruggeri, with railway bridge in background

05 July 2020

Almost 15 years ago, Kai Ruggeri drove 300 miles to his mother’s home in Missouri to surprise her with the news that he had just been admitted to do a PhD course at Queen’s, having never been to Belfast, Northern Ireland or the British Isles before.   

Applying to the School of Psychology at Queen’s was, he would later write, the ‘best study decision’ he ever made.

Dr Ruggeri is now Assistant Professor in the Department of Health Policy & Management at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York. Kai joined Columbia from the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge, where he directed the Policy Research Group that he founded in 2013.  

Originally from Rolla, Missouri, he went to high school in the neighbouring state of Illinois. He took his undergraduate degree in North Central College in Naperville, also in Illinois in 2006. That same year he came to Belfast to start his PhD in Psychology.

“It was the only postgraduate programme I seriously considered, after some discussions with advisors and a few friends from Belfast,” said Dr Ruggeri. “I was interested in two different degrees, but one stood out by offering me to go straight into the PhD from undergraduate.

“Because I was allowed to pick my supervisors and generally to direct my own research plan while getting all the support from the School of Psychology, there was no doubt for me. As I had been convinced Belfast would be a good home for me for the time, and that Queen’s was a perfect fit for studying, getting the official acceptance is one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

“I actually got in the car and drove 300 miles to tell my mother in person.”

Kai relished his three years at Queen’s. Being part of an international student body in his first year he said was ‘amazing’. He also enjoyed strong local connections through rugby (Belfast Harlequins and Holywood) and American Football (Belfast Trojans), and being part of a cohort of psychology students ‘really made it all seem pretty special’.

Pursuing a PhD is, of course, a major challenge in itself, especially being so far from home. Daily life requires routine, constant determination and focus, as in many cases, the student is largely on his or her own to develop the work.

“I felt completely supported by the School and the University,” said Kai, “though there were many ups and downs. However, even with those challenges, the engagement I had, and the people I knew in Belfast, made this unquestionably the best decision of my life.”

Was there a particular memory or occasion that stands out?

“Too many wonderful moments to pick a single one,” he said. “Passing my viva and having so many friends from both Queen’s and Belfast join in the celebrations was a fitting conclusion to it all.

“Almost every day seems pretty special in retrospect, though, as I could not have known at the time just how much I was growing professionally and personally,” he added.

After he completed his PhD in 2009, Dr Ruggeri spent 18 months out of academia and only shifted fully toward an academic career several years later. Kai arrived at Cambridge in 2011, first affiliated to Darwin College and eventually becoming a Fellow in Psychological and Behavioural Sciences at Corpus Christi College. He remains a Senior Fellow in the Centre for Business Research at the Judge Business School at Cambridge, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He has also been Visiting Faculty in Microeconomics at the HEC Business School in Paris (primarily at the Doha campus).

“I wanted to get a broad understanding of different institutions and how they made an impact on the world. After some time, I realized that the best way I could contribute was through advancing my research in the public interest,” said Dr Ruggeri.

Now as a full-time professor, Kai Ruggeri’s primary roles are teaching (mostly in statistics/analytics, decision-making, and public policy) and research. More regularly he is asked to step into a variety of consulting and advisory roles e.g. for civil sector government offices, businesses, non-profits, and international organisations like the UN and the OECD.

“I also get the joy and privilege of working with a lot of amazing young professionals, mostly in behavioural science but also from other fields like public health,” he added.

Dr Ruggeri primarily studies how policy influences population behaviour, and how integrating behavioural evidence into policies can improve economic outcomes and population well-being. Current projects involve a number of behavioural policy studies focusing on large-scale data related to economic choices and their outcomes.

He also directs a global initiative for early career behavioural scientists.  

“It has been especially meaningful that I have had the opportunity to launch and direct a programme for psychology students, known as the Junior Researcher Programme. We now have over 250 active and former students from over 30 countries, and recently completed a global study on decision-making, carried out entirely by early career psychologists.

“In many ways, this is directly thanks to the support and training I received in the School of Psychology at Queen’s,” he added.

What advice might he have for graduates of the Class of 2020, given the particular difficulties this year’s cohort is facing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic? 

“Many people will be able to point to this time and say ‘well, it was difficult to do much in those circumstances’. What the world actually needs are the people who say ‘I saw what the challenges were, and here is what I did in spite of them’, said Dr Ruggeri.

“To the extent possible, I try to encourage the young people I work with not to see what the impacts are on them, but instead, how they are the ones we will look to lead us forward.

“I would encourage all Queen’s graduates to think the same, and apply it to their own communities.”

Dr Ruggeri regards himself extremely fortunate for the skills and topics covered during his PhD in Belfast, which he says are what he now applies directly to his work.

“It is impossible to overstate how important it was to have the opportunity to study at Queen’s, and to have the support and guidance I received from peers, faculty, and staff in the School of Psychology.

“Without question, I am just as passionate – maybe even more so – about my subject as the day I was admitted to the programme, and consider it to be the turning point that has led to the wonderful opportunities I have had in my career since graduating.”

For details of Dr Ruggeri’s most recent work ‘Replicating patterns of prospect theory for decision under risk’ please visit Nature Human BehaviourGo online to find out more about the School of Psychology at Queen's and the PhD opportunities and courses currently available.  

For general enquiries about this story, or to submit a graduate news item, please contact Gerry Power, Communications Officer, Development and Alumni Relations Office, Queen’s University Belfast.

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