Conversation with Nilupa Gunaratna

Official Statistics: Trees in nature reservoir in East Africa Statistics Without Borders Nilupa Gunaratna

Official Statistics: Nilupa Gunaratna wearing red scarf smiling

“When one thinks about a group’s communication, there are several aspects. There are the external communication activities, such as the website and magazine. In more recent years, we have explored using social media to communicate with our members, as well as the outside world.  Then there are the more internal communication activities – facilitating dialogue among members including the leadership as the organization grows and develops.”

Gary Shapiro, Chair New Projects Committee, Statistics Without Borders (SWB)

With assistance from Katherine Condon, Interview Editor, SJIAOS

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 February 26, 2016 between Nilupa Gunaratna and Gary Shapiro, with assistance from Katherine Condon, we learn about Nilupa’s experiences with Statistics in the Community (STATCOM) at Purdue University’s Department of Statistics, as well as Statistics Without Borders (SWB) to create continuing and sustainable volunteer organizations.  Nilupa currently serves as the Communication Director for SWB.  During her graduate school years, she served as STATCOM’s third Director. 

Interviewer: You are probably the only person in Statistics Without Borders (SWB) management who has some prior relevant experience and training through the work you did in formalizing Statistics in the Community (STATCOM) program at Purdue University. Could you tell us a little about how you learned about the program while in college, as well as any projects that you volunteered for and are particularly proud of? 

The STATCOM program at Purdue University’s Department of Statistics was the first of its kind.  It is a student-run volunteer organization that started in 2001.[1] Although I was not one of the founders, I was lucky to get involved early on just as the group of volunteers wanted to formalize into something like an organization. It was started by a graduate student, Nels Grevstad, who had an interest in doing pro-bono statistical consulting and saw the need for this at both the local and state level.  [Nels was ahead of me, but we overlapped in the years we were at Purdue.]

However, when it came time for Nels to graduate, a decision had to be made as to whether this work would end with his graduation, or it would continue.  If it were going to continue, then it needed to become more formalized into an organization.  We had to think about how to ensure continuity and sustainability.  One of the ways that we developed the organization’s sustainability was to develop procedures and a manual of operations. We also decided on our organizational structure and on which types of clients we would focus.  In addition, to help the organization’s continuity, we established the next three student directors.  As a result, I was asked to be that third director.  While it was in the future, it allowed an opportunity for peer training, and we all realized the importance of establishing a pipeline of leadership.

Also at about this time, there was a lot of good mentorship from the American Statistical Association (ASA), such as from Fritz Scheuren who was the ASA’s President (2005).  Fritz was traveling around to various universities' statistical departments.  We met with him and told him about our program and he was very excited.  He encouraged us to tell people about our program and we wrote a couple of articles for Amstat News (Gunaratna, 2006; Gunaratna, et al, 2006), as well as made presentations to spread the word.  To expand the organization model outwardly to other universities, in 2006, I led the ASA Strategic Initiative (with support from a Member Initiatives Grant[2] which we received).  This was a fairly large effort: we visited approximately 14 different institutions; we made presentations; we developed packets of information; we made materials available on the ASA website; we wrote articles, including some peer-reviewed articles; and just talked with as many people as possible which led to the establishment of many different STATCOMs, but also a network that connected them and developed an institutional home for STATCOM within the ASA. 

The vision of STATCOM is to apply statistical methods and principles to support and have a positive impact on communities and institutions that serve those communities; as well as, to increase communication and collaboration among student statisticians who are engaged in service-oriented statistics.  The projects that STATCOM volunteers get involved in allow students to gain service-learning outside their normal classroom setting and curriculum.  (See Resources Section)

As part of STATCOM, I had been involved in several projects at the state/local levels.  One in particular was with the city of West Lafayette, Indiana.  The mayor of the town was interested in revitalization of neighborhoods.  She set up a task force on development and wanted to ask both local residents and businesses their opinions through surveys.  STATCOM assisted by consulting on sampling and survey design, as well as analyzing the results, which were presented and discussed at public meetings. 

My experience is an example of the additional, but sometimes less tangible, benefits for participating students.  They can become involved in the practice of statistics before they have completed their coursework, and they learn things not typically covered in the classroom – technical and statistical consulting skills as well as leadership and management skills.  STATCOM allows newer students to have interactions with and mentorship from more senior students, leading to a greater sense of community within the student body and lasting professional and social relationships.  For many of us, it developed our identities as statisticians, as members of our university and department, and as members of the local community.  In the process, we were also contributing to the university’s mission of engagement in the larger community. This seemed more important to me, than building a CV.

In addition to the statistical consulting work, STATCOM also developed an outreach program (P-12 Outreach Program) in an effort to increase interest and achievement in statistics at all pre-college levels [for Purdue University this would be specifically for the State of Indiana].  (See Resources Section)

Interviewer: How did you learn about and first get involved with Statistics without Borders (SWB)?

Statistics without Borders (SWB) sprang out of a conversation between the interviewer Gary Shapiro and the former Editor-in-Chief of SJIAOS, Fritz Scheuren after a panel session entitled “Statisticians Speaking Out and Reaching Out on Global Health” at the 2008 Joint Statistical Meeting (JSM).  For more information, see West and Condon (2015)

The ASA Strategic Initiative (Member Initiative) that help disseminate the STATCOM model to other universities allowed us to work closely with ASA and especially its members who were interested in pro bono statistics.  It was a natural connection.  I haven't been involved in SWB projects, as they overlap in content and clients somewhat with my "day job", and that sometimes raises issues, so I've been trying to contribute as I can to the organization itself rather than specific projects.

My contributions to the organization of SWB has been mostly in the areas of serving as Secretary before SWB formalized its charter and currently as Communications Director. 

Interviewer: You are currently a scientist doing research related to health, nutrition, agriculture and related development issues mostly in Africa.  What skills or connections from your “day job” do you bring to your “volunteer work life” and vice-versa bringing from your “volunteer work life” to your “day job”?

Yes, my “day job” is as a scientist, doing research in developing countries - mostly in East Africa.  I’m especially interested in how agriculture and the environment affect our health and well-being.  While I don't teach courses, I do mentor students, especially in Ethiopia, where I have been working a lot lately.

The experiences with STATCOM have been useful with my current work, to address issues of sampling, questionnaire design, survey implementation, and presentation of results.  However, it isn’t just the technical skills but also skills along the entire process of statistical consulting such as initiating contact with clients, determining deliverables and timelines, and collaborating and communicating with non-statisticians.

After I finished my training at Purdue, I worked for a time at a non-profit organization.  There were several skills that I gained while working concurrently in the non-profit sector and in pro bono statistical organizations, showing the high degree of overlap in these areas.  These skills involved developing a mission and vision, planning, and goal setting, as well as branding ourselves as an organization, developing our communications materials, managing projects, working with clients, motivating people who are volunteers, planning sustainability and continuity and building a pipeline of volunteers, to name just a few.

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] Statistics in the Community (STATCOM) is an entirely student-run service at several universities including Purdue University that provides free, professional statistical consulting to local, governmental, and nonprofit organizations.  For more information about Statistics in the Community, see both the Resources section at the end of this piece and the following references, Gunaratna (2006) and Gunaratna, et al. (2006). 

[2] At the time, these were called “Strategic Initiatives”.