2018 AWM Essay Contest: College Level Winner
By: Francesca Paris
In the past few years, Dr. Bhramar Mukherjee has started to work out. She is a biostatistician with a strong mathematical foundation, and the associate chair of the University of Michigan’s biostatistics department. But when it comes to the gym, she is once again a student and a beginner. “I was always very mentally agile,” she said. “But my physical coordination and my balance are terrible.”
Outside of yoga and pilates, however, Mukherjee performs a series of balancing acts: she merges. theoretical study with application; she serves as both an administrator and a professor; and, perhaps most notably, she succeeds as both a single parent and an accomplished academic. In a high school in Kolkata, India, Mukherjee faced her first major academic choice: science or art? Born into a family of teachers that valued literature, she was fascinated by both academic disciplines. Ultimately, she decided she could continue to appreciate art as an amateur but would need high-level quantitative training to pursue the mathematical ideas that excited her, and she chose science.
She enrolled in Kolkata’s Presidency University, the equivalent of an elite U.S. liberal arts college. Studying for her Bachelor of Science degree in statistics at Presidency, she had only a handful of female peers. At the Indian Statistical Institute, she was the only woman in her master’s class of 16.
From there, Mukherjee moved to Purdue University in Indiana, where she earned a Master of Science degree in mathematical statistics, then a Ph.D. in statistics. When she graduated from Purdue in 2001 with her doctorate, she had few family members in the crowd, a result of leaving home so far behind. But unlike many of her peers, she had one very small vocal supporter: her three-year-old daughter. Mukherjee gave birth just 10 days before her Ph.D. comprehensive exams at Purdue. Looking back, she believes passing the exams with a newborn was a sign that she could conquer the challenges ahead. From the graduation stage, Mukherjee recalled, “I could hear her scream, ‘Go, mamma, go. And even today I can still hear that.”
At her first job, as an assistant professor at the University of Florida, she felt a tension between theoretical work — her dissertation focused on stochastic processes — and her desire for real world impact. So in 2002 she turned toward biostatistics, looking at new methods for characterizing genetic and environmental interactions in case-control cancer studies. Switching specialties meant a lot of catching up for Mukherjee, so she had few publications early in her career, and “the annual review was a nightmare.” Through those times of rejection and struggle, she says, it was the joy of teaching that kept her going. In 2006 she started as an assistant professor in the biostatistics department at the University of Michigan. Just over a decade later she is the associate chair for the department, as well as the associate director for cancer control and population sciences at the University of Michigan Cancer Center. In those roles, Mukherjee balances the theoretical nature of academic work with her desire to bring change. Her position at the Cancer Center is not usually held by a biostatistician, but she believes it’s the “where the impact of our profession is.”
In her research Mukherjee characterizes risk of colorectal cancer through fine statistical methods, and notes differences between whites and African-Americans. In the center she translates that work into action, developing resources like free colonoscopy screenings for underserved populations. As the statistical landscape shifts with technological advancements, she sees the increasing prospects for precision medicine, using big data on health records to predict risk or
prescribe treatments for individual patients. That comes with challenges: many health records ar not yet integrated, medical data are rarely recorded in simple random samples, and records can be missing for any number of reasons. But Mukherjee tackles these questions around data integration, non-probabilistic sampling, and missing data with enthusiasm: the potential for powerful applications of that theoretical work, she believes, is enormous. As associate chair, administrative work threatens at times to eclipse her research. But the position also gives Mukherjee the opportunity to help reduce the profound gender inequality she has seen in the field. She can advocate for strong women scientists in resource allocation and hiring. Her own career, she thinks, also sets a precedent for women in leadership positions. “You can only change the system when you actually first conquer it,” she pointed out.
Succeeding in academia has not been easy. Mukherjee spent most of her years in Florida and Michigan as a single mother, which meant constantly balancing career and family responsibilities. She recalls waking up an hour before a scheduled lecture, only to find her daughter with a 104-degree fever. She says the University of Michigan’s benefits for single and working parents, like subsidizing a qualified individual to watch her daughter, made it possible for her to pursue her dreams. Still, she struggled with the feeling that she was not fully succeeding either as a researcher or as a mother, and that she should choose one path. Challenges, however, beget opportunities. Her daughter had the chance to travel with Mukherjee, from Kolkata to Spain, and her presence was a constant reminder to her mother about what matters the most. “I work all day, solving complicated calculations and stochastic equations,”
Mukherjee recalled, “and then my daughter comes in and erases everything and paints a flower on it.” Now her daughter is a junior at Mount Holyoke, which gives Mukherjee more time to spend on her other passions, like watching theatre and reading. Her daughter’s academic interests lean more towards history and politics than math. While other fields inspire her daughter, Mukherjee is inspiring her daughter’s generation. In 2015, she founded the Undergraduate Summer Institute on Big Data to introduce students to the interaction of statistics and public health. She sees a desire in young people to merge quantitative studies with socially relevant applications, and she wants to show them that with big data today, that combination might actually change the world.
About the student:
Francesca Paris is a senior statistics and Arabic studies double major at Williams College, in Williamstown, MA. A native of Oakland, CA, she has worked in print and online media and public radio, most recently at The Takeaway from WNYC. In the statistics department at Williams she has worked as a teaching assistant and a research assistant. She is excited about the intersection of journalism and statistics, and her dream job involves working with both audio and data.