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UCC’s Dr Sarah Foley discusses the potential of tech to bring people together and her ‘full-circle moment’ in research.

Dr Sarah Foley is a lecturer in the School of Applied Psychology at University College Cork (UCC). Her research examines the role of technology in supporting health and social care.

She received her PhD in applied psychology in 2020 after looking into the potential of technology to enhance social engagement in dementia care. She is now a member of the People and Technology Lab in UCC and an academic member of Lero, the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) research centre for software.

‘I’m inherently interested in the role and potential of technology in the lives of people who have not fully been considered within the design of technology’

Tell us about the research you’re currently working on.

Future Human

I am particularly interested in understanding how technology impacts people’s experiences of caring for themselves and others. Currently, I’m working on a research project examining women’s experience of using digital platforms when caring for their health and wellbeing.

While there are considerable benefits to sharing healthcare-related concerns online, there are also emerging concerns about privacy and unintended audiences, which may impact people’s access to social support.

This project is a collaboration with Dr Kellie Morrissey and Doireann Peelo from the School of Design at University of Limerick, and Stephanie Murphy and Prof John McCarthy from the School of Applied Psychology at UCC. Our research is funded by the SFI Lero centre and examines the social and technical aspects at play when creating and sharing data online to inform the design of safer online experiences.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

In my research, I’m inherently interested in the role and potential of technology in the lives of people who have not fully been considered within the design of technology. This work began in my PhD research, where I examined the potential of technology to support social engagement for people with advanced dementia.

Through this research, I learned of the potential of technology to bring people together and support communication, while also becoming keenly aware of the many ways in which technology is not designed to consider the needs and abilities of the user fully.

I see my role as a researcher centred on these research experiences, creating a core knowledge basis for the design and creation of more effective and appropriate technology that caters to people’s needs, rather than creating new challenges, particularly when people need care.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

To be honest, I really did not know about what was involved in research until I started my undergraduate degree in applied psychology at UCC. I had aspirations to become a psychologist and was interested in studying human experience and behaviour, without really knowing what psychologists did or the variety within the field.

When I began my degree, research methods were central to our training, and I began to see a career that I didn’t know was possible. In this sense, my lecturers and research supervisors were my inspiration to pursue this career.

I remember being introduced to these methods in our first-year research course and being excited by the opportunities to learn about how we make sense of people’s experiences. I now teach that course, which is a lovely full-circle moment.

What are some of the biggest challenges or misconceptions you face as a researcher in your field?

As I mentioned, my research approach is interested in understanding human experience from the perspective of people’s accounts of their own experiences. This approach is known as qualitative research, which involves the analysis of people’s accounts of their experiences, beliefs and appraisals of events.

These methods can sometimes be challenged as less valid or generalisable than other methods which deal with data from larger samples of people. For me, a range of methods is required to understand the phenomenon that we’re studying as researchers.

Sometimes it’s important to justify this and demonstrate the rigour of qualitative analysis to other researchers. I find working in collaboration with researchers with different backgrounds and approaches can further demonstrate the contribution of qualitative research to scientific research.

Do you think public engagement with science has changed in recent years?

There has never been higher regard, or interest, in science from the general public. Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, we have seen how people look to science and data to make sense of and perhaps even predict what is ahead of us. However, there is never an easy answer to why or how things happen.

I think now more than ever, scientists need to be considered and careful in presenting their work and intentional in their message. I also believe there is an opportunity for more members of the general public to engage in scientific research through initiatives such as citizen science projects.

For example, I am currently involved in a Science Foundation Ireland citizen science project, supporting community members who are interested in learning more about nature, collecting and observing data about their local ecosystems through technology.

By sharing the data collection process with our participants, we can share the scientific methods that we use and involve the wider public in the research process itself. This helps break down barriers to engaging with science and encourages interest in the kinds of questions science asks.

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