In December, Mousumi Banerjee—Center member and Anant M. Kshirsagar Collegiate Research Professor of Biostatistics in the U-M School of Public Health—offered Where Science Meets Humanity, a seminar about her path to the field of public health, including her experiences in India that led to a transformation in how she understands her role in global health.

The seminar was moderated by Center for Global Health Equity Impact Scholar Ryan Rego. The written excerpt below is provided by Sonia Mishra, India Communications Representative for Michigan News and the Center for South Asian Studies.

While visiting India as a guest lecturer in 2015, Mousumi Banerjee found herself shocked for the first time in a long time.

She was visiting a cancer registry in southern India. As she walked through the facility, she was struck by the hopelessness on the faces of patients and their families. Her alarm grew deeper as she was escorted through hallways filled with patient files, radiology reports, and film in disarray.

“I grew up in India, and I had been studying cancer for years, so this should not have been a new situation for me,” said Banerjee. “But this moment changed my thinking. I was used to the gold standard of cancer surveillance systems in the US, and I foolishly thought one size fits all. Those faces and those files showed me that you must be in touch with the reality of the environment, the situation, the people, the space, and the time if you want to find real solutions.”

Banerjee received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in statistics from the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata and her PhD in statistics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In addition to being on faculty in the School of Public Health, she is director of Biostatistics at the Center for Healthcare Outcomes and Policy, member of the Rogel Cancer Center and Precision Health, and affiliate faculty in the Michigan Institute for Data Science, and the Center for South Asian Studies. She also is a Fellow of the American Statistical Association and an elected member of the International Statistical Institute.

Banerjee was thrust into the spotlight during the recent pandemic. She was part of a team that analyzed COVID data and used data-driven modeling to inform policymakers and stakeholders.

“Early on during the pandemic, I was shocked when I looked at the numbers from my home state of West Bengal in India,” said Banerjee. “They were underreporting cases and deaths hugely, but I knew people were dying all around. I just could not stay quiet.”

With a group of 14 health scientists, physicians, and providers all originally from West Bengal, Banerjee wrote an open letter to West Bengal’s chief minister addressing their concerns on the gross undertesting in West Bengal and the misreporting of data on the causes of COVID-19 deaths.

“As professionals in the field, we strongly urge the Chief Minister and the Ministry of Health of West Bengal to (1) increase testing in the state by all means and (2) take responsibility for accurate and consistent reporting of COVID-19 data. We urge the leaders of our beloved state to lead with science and humanity,” the letter stated.

The letter garnered immediate attention from all over India. Banerjee was on several media outlets and became a target for trolls, email threats, and even direct attacks from the state government.

“My family and friends joked about how much negative publicity I got, but human lives were involved,” said Banerjee. “In the end, the central government sent another independent committee to evaluate the data reporting in the state, and they came out with similar observations. They knew everyone was watching them now.”

Banerjee continues her global research to help connect the numbers to the people, in many instances stepping out of her usual comfort zone. Her methodological research focuses on clinical decision-making, policy, health outcomes, disease prognostication, healthcare quality, and equitable care delivery.

“I feel like I’ve grown as a statistician and a person through these experiences,” adds Banerjee. “I grew up in a family of teachers, so I’m very passionate about my teaching. I strive not only to teach but to touch my students emotionally. We can’t let future generations forget about the humanity of it all.”

Banerjee founded the nonprofit foundation Tagore Beyond Boundaries as another way to connect to the community. It is a historic effort to bring the music and poetry of Rabindranath Thakur (Tagore) to the world.