Conversation with Monica Dashen

Official Statistics: Stupas temples in Myanmar Interview with Monica Dashen


Official Statistics: Monica Dashen in Myanmar with wind blowing through hair

"“Although sometimes help may not be initially forthcoming from individual sources, it is the asking for help that is important, which then builds trust.”

The views and opinions expressed in the conversation are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the Statistical Journal of the International Association for Official Statistics nor IOS Press.

The Conversation series in SJIAOS focuses on work and endeavors that go beyond a particular individual with statistical interest.  In this Conversation conducted on May 20, 2016 between Monica Dashen and Katherine Condon, we learn about Monica’s experiences on a volunteer project with Statistics Without Borders (SWB) in the Inle Lake region of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma).  The project focused on maternal and infant care service delivery supported by Global Community Service Foundation (GCSF). [1]

As background for this piece, we have included some background regarding location of project (see Figure 1) to show where the project was located and a timeline of selected events regarding Myanmar/Burma.  In addition, we learned that Monica had been to Burma as an 8-year old child with her family when her father (American theoretical physicist Roger Dashen (1938-1995)) gave several lectures in India and Burma in 1973.  More recently, Monica, her husband and three of her children visited Burma in the summer of 2012, before Monica became involved in the SWB project being discussed in this Conversation.

Interviewer: Before we get to the specific project, let’s talk about yourself briefly.  What is your background and training? How did you learn about Statistics Without Borders (SWB)?; and How did you first get involved with SWB?

Going backwards, I first learned about Statistics Without Borders (SWB)[2] through Amstat News.[3] I spoke to Cathy (Furlong) about the process. I put my hat in the ring for a couple of calls.  I was selected for the Iraqi Mortality project but when the team got together, the beginning of ISIS activities had started, so the project was put on hold.  Then, a couple of months later, on my own initiative, I spoke to Global Community Service Foundation (GCSF) and found out about their need for a program evaluation of the work they had been sponsoring in selected villages in the Inle Lake region of Burma/Myanmar with respect to maternal and infant care. 

[GCSF] has been running a small charity in the Inle Lake area of Myanmar. In 1995, GCSF started building homes in the area and, in 2010, launched a maternal and infant care program. Retired government midwives (dubbed GCSF midwives) regularly travel to a prescribed set of villages and distribute prenatal vitamins, as well as advise the women about getting tetanus shots and worm pills from their local government midwife. (Dashen, 2016).

As for my own background, like my dad[4], I opted to obtain a Ph.D. (from Columbia University). However, I opted to earn my degree in applied psychology instead of physics.  Applied psychology is different from clinical psychology in that it is experimental.  My dissertation advisor was Ernie Rothkopf.  He had recently moved from Bell Labs to Columbia University where he was in the process of finishing up some work on a voice recognition project.  While I played a small role in that project, it gave me important training in examining and presenting data to inform audiences.

I tried teaching at a university for a year or so after graduating.  I found that I didn’t really enjoy it. I learned about a job in the federal government, packed up and headed south. I spent almost 15 years at Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) - Office of Survey Methods and Research.  I left the BLS to become a stay-at-home mom.   I now enjoy applying my skills to humanitarian projects. I am learning all sorts things.  For example, in a refugee project that I am working on, I just read a book about hard to reach populations. For the study in Myanmar/Burma, I read a lot about medical care in developing countries while designing the questionnaire for GCSF, as well as, the historical books about Burma.

Interviewer: Can you tell the readers about the background of the project for the development of Maternal and Infant Care Survey for evaluating the effectiveness of the program and finding ways to scale up the program?  How did you learn about this project?

In the midst of planning a family trip to Burma (Summer 2012)[5], I learned about the work of Global Community Service Foundation (GCSF).  In Fall 2013 when my kids were older and I was a stay-at-home mother, I contact GCSF to find out more about their work.  I learned that they were in the process of applying for USAID funding and needed to conduct a program evaluation[6] 

We partnered together to formulate an evaluation of the Maternal and Infant Care program that GCSF had been sponsoring and brought the project into SWB.  The collaboration between myself, SWB and GCSF

sought to find out whether the GCSF program matters and identify critical knowledge gaps of maternal and infant care among mothers and health care workers. The plan was to compare the main part of Inle Lake, serviced by GCSF, to the lower part, not serviced by GCSF. Using the two-stage cluster sampling method, SwB interviewed 322 females capable of having children about their fertility history, medical care, knowledge, and beliefs. (Dashen, 2016)

I worked with SWB staff to get this project going.  I was involved in all phases of the project ranging from study and questionnaire design, data collection, processing, and analysis, as well as, the final write-up. GCSF provided knowledge about the Burmese culture and had "boots on the ground," (i.e., providing the medical care for mothers and babies on the lake).

Interviewer: What intrigued you most about this project?

What interested me most was the comparison between myself as a mother and these mothers in the Inle region of Myanmar.  We were in the same boat – so to speak – in that we were caring and raising our children.  However, due to community infrastructure and country economy, they did things differently from me.[7]  I think that was what began my interest in this project and throughout the project.  In addition, I had worked at Bureau of Labor Statistics where I was involved in several surveys that fed into the CPI (Consumer Price Index)[8] – while I had a sense of how to do a survey, I did not know about health care in developing countries, so I had to read a lot. 

Interviewer: Now that the project has been completed, what did you find most fascinating about this project?

I spoke to a lot of other public health people about my findings, and they were not surprised about my findings.  For instance, government midwives with 1-2 years of training were the primary source of family health care, not just maternal care.  Any health concerns, even cancer, were brought to the attention of these government midwives first.  Doctors are available but more costly and fewer in number.  I guess what surprised me the most was how little support these village women had for the care of their children.  For example, when we asked the women to identify the danger signs of pneumonia.  I tried to think about how I would answer this question with regard to my own children.  That is, if there was something wrong with my children, I would know there was something wrong and call the doctor.  While for these women, that was not always an option. Not only was it a matter of having the money to see a doctor, but these women may not have reliable phone service to call a doctor. As a result, these women may rely on a non-skilled health worker who could potentially provide incorrect information.



This is a preview of an interview conducted for and published in the Statistical Journal of the IAOS. The full interview can be read here.



[1] Global Community Service Foundation (GCSF) is a small charity, located in Virginia, that provides health and education oriented services in Myanmar and Vietnam. For more information: http://globalcommunityservice.org/.

[2] Statistics Without Borders (SWB) is an outreach program of the American Statistical Association where over 1000 members provide technical pro-bono support to non-government organizations, academics, governments and so forth.  For more information, see Conversation with Cathy Furlong (West and Condon, 2015) and their website at: http://community.amstat.org/statisticswithoutborders/home

[3] Amstat News is the monthly membership magazine of the American Statistical Association (ASA), bringing ASA members news and notices of the ASA, its chapters, its sections, and other members. (http://magazine.amstat.org/).

[4] American theoretical physicist Roger Dashen (1938-1995) - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Dashen and http://www.nasonline.org/publications/biographical-memoirs/memoir-pdfs/…

[5] At the time Monica’s family consisted of a husband and three children – the oldest 11 years old and a set of twins age 8 years old.  Monica remembers doing a lot of preparation for the trip; as Burma at the time did not have ATMs and credit cards were not widely used.  She said that she “traveled like my parents did and brought everything with us.  [We brought] all sorts of medications, as well as cash.  So, we spent very little money once we were there.”

[6] Like many small charities, the organization focused its limited funding to activities focused on the actual provision of services to the community and less on administrative data that would be important for evaluating the program, such as which villages the GCSF-sponsored midwives went to and what services were provided by GCSF-sponsored midwives. Monica saw that she could help GCSF with their data and evaluation needs.

[7] One such difference was the worrying about childcare – Monica said that “When a woman marries, she typically lives with her mother-in-law.  Day care struggles are irrelevant in such a situation.  In addition, I saw a lot of middle school aged children playing in the fields during the day, while my middle school aged kid would be in school.”

[8] The Consumer Price Index (CPI) is a measure of the average change over time in the prices paid by urban consumers for a market basket of consumer goods and services.