Biostatistician Bhramar Mukherjee
Helping India manage the pandemic
by Cynthia Furlong Reynolds
From the July, 2020 issue
"I'm the black sheep of my family, the outlier," Bhramar Mukherjee says, laughing. "I had to hide my math books inside comic books so my family wouldn't criticize the way I was spending my time."
Born in Kolkata into a family renowned in India's theater world, Mukherjee recalls dinner table conversations centering on the arts, theater, literature, and music--"things that were not quantifiable, raising questions that couldn't be resolved objectively. I preferred puzzles and problems with answers."
So instead of the arts, she studied statistics. After earning degrees in India, she won a scholarship to study in America, where she enrolled in master's and doctoral programs at Purdue.
Already married, she gave birth to her only child, a daughter, when she was twenty-four, juggling marriage and motherhood with graduate work while living half a world away from her support network and family of origin. (She and her husband subsequently divorced; her daughter is now a grad student and aspiring writer at the University of Chicago.)
After teaching at the University of Florida, Mukherjee was recruited by the U-M's biostatistics department in 2005. "Michigan offered me a chance to work with its schools of medicine and public health," she explains. "I enjoy translating complex social problems into mathematics, so it was a perfect fit for me."
Now the John D. Kalbfleisch professor of biostatistics, Mukherjee holds a dual appointment in global health and epidemiology and is chair-elect for the Committee of Presidents of Statistical Societies. But she is especially proud to be the first woman to head the U-M biostatistics department.
By the end of last year, she had published more than 240 journal articles, most on the development and application of statistical methods in epidemiology, environmental health, and disease risk. But until Covid-19, she had never worked on infectious disease models.
That changed in early March, when Mukherjee was quarantined at home after contact with someone who tested positive for the novel coronavirus. She says she felt helpless,
with her family far away and global travel restrictions. Because India had limited contacts with China, it lagged behind other countries in Covid-19 cases, but she knew it was only a matter of time.
"The slums of India are so densely packed, and migrant workers move from the city throughout the countryside to find work, so stopping the spread of coronavirus was a tremendous challenge for a country like India," she explains. "On top of Covid, India was hit by a cyclone that caused tremendous devastation. The times look apocalyptic."
With friends and colleagues, she formed the COV-IND-19 Study Group. They researched how the disease had spread in China and Italy, and sketched a statistical picture of India in the grip of the novel coronavirus.
A biostatistics colleague, Peter X. K. Song, had built an epidemiological model for the pandemic's epicenter, Hubei province in China. "He told me he couldn't change policy in China because the pandemic was well underway," Mukherjee recalls, "but he suggested I use this model for India."
When Mukherjee posted news of the project on medium.com, graduate students and colleagues offered to help--"particularly Indian students still on campus." When the group realized they needed economic expertise, a friend from the Delhi School of Economics signed on, as did an economist at U Mass Amherst.
"We really wanted to get the data out there immediately, hoping it would make a difference in India," Mukherjee says. Using Song's model and software, the volunteers completed a thirty-page report in an astounding four days. "We barely slept," she said. "We had a purpose, though none of us previously had modeling experience involving infectious diseases."
Released on March 22, the report was featured in media around the world. Its conclusion: "a man-made disruption" must be implemented to stop the burgeoning tide of Covid-19 cases before the virus decimates the slums and cities of India.
At the time, India had only 536 reported cases and eleven deaths. But the response was immediate and dramatic. On March 24, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown. The work of Mukherjee's volunteer group in Michigan had ramifications half a world away.
"You can't call this a typical success story for a biostatistician," says one colleague admiringly.
"I'm a data scientist," says Mukherjee. "I cannot go to the front line and cure people or work on developing drugs. I can only try to unravel the patterns that are hidden in the data and help the public."
The lockdown saved the lives of countless people, but "ultimately it wasn't as effective as we had hoped," she adds. After two months, India's economy was struggling so dramatically that the lockdown was ended. Through mid June, India had counted more than 300,000 cases and 8,500 deaths.
Along with worldwide attention, the COV-IND-19 study generated "a strong feeling of social solidarity" among its members, Mukherjee says. "In the worst of times, it's wonderful to see people rise to the occasion and share a common mission for greater good."
Many grad students put their dissertations on hold to work with the group. "I'm finding it hard to get back to my research, too," she admits. "As statisticians doing this project, we were working on the ground for an immediate impact on tomorrow, not on theoretical cases. That was very satisfying."
Away from work, Mukherjee has immersed herself in Ann Arbor's theater, music, film, and art communities. "In truth, it was the Law Quad and Michigan Theater that especially attracted me to Ann Arbor at first," she says. "Ann Arbor is very liberal, very charming, and the arts here are a real draw. I'm so happy when I can watch and experience art."
Her father, a renowned actor, dreams of playing King Lear with his daughter starring on the stage with him. "I probably have a modest baseline ability to act because of my father's genes, but I never worked on it," the professor says. "My father is eighty years old now. I live and work in the United States. And the world is facing a pandemic, so I am sad to say he may not realize that dream."
She adds, "I don't think it was until the COV-IND-19 report was released, when my parents saw me on television, that they finally understood what I do for a living. Such is the hyphenated identity of an immigrant scholar, who balances a life across two continents."
[Originally published in July, 2020.]
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