Beyond the Numbers

Saving lives and delivering data around the world

I hope you’re not queasy, because this is not work for the faint of heart. Or stomach. Getting squeamish would get in the way of the work itself, which is to help people, to save lives, to make things better, however you can, in whatever way you can.

Sometimes that means sitting in an office in Washington, D.C., talking with people around the globe. Sometimes it means looking at the data, all the data in all its forms, and analyzing it, verifying it, shaping it, pushing it. And sometimes it means working in the field, from Africa to Afghanistan, doing everything from physically removing worms from children to teaching HIV-prevention programs.

Jennifer Burnett-Zieman (B.S./B.A. ’02, Biology, Economics, LAMP) has done all of this and more. Currently, she works at Abt Associates as the head of monitoring and evaluation on the Sustaining Health Outcomes through the Private Sector (SHOPS) Plus Project, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). But she started out as a young college graduate, heading to a small village in Ghana as a Peace Corps volunteer.

“I was pre-med at IU, and I went into the Peace Corps, and that changed where I wanted to go in life and how I saw myself being able to use my education,” Jennifer says. “I really didn’t even know that what I do for a living was a job until I went into the Peace Corps.”

What she does now, of course, only bears a tangential relationship to what she did with the Peace Corps — unless you look at the data in the right way. Although she initially wanted to work in public health during her stint with the Peace Corps, what they needed at the time was a high school science teacher.

And so, for two years, she taught high school science. That was just fine with Jennifer. Her approach to the work, and the world, is a pragmatic one. What is the need? How can it be met? Where can she be most useful?

In other words, she looks at the numbers. Jennifer taught classes with as many as 71 students for her “day job,” and then she worked on secondary projects like biking to remote areas to provide HIV/AIDS education.

“I loved it so much,” she says, “I actually extended for a third year.”

That year, she moved to Kumasi, Ghana's second largest city, to be the volunteer leader for the area, supporting volunteers like herself and working with the regional ministry of health to train associations dedicated to helping people living with HIV/AIDS. By this time, she knew she wanted to continue to work in international development — and that meant returning to the classroom.

Jennifer Burnett-Zieman, who recently received the College of Arts and Sciences' Outstanding Young Alumni Award, returned to campus in February and met with several classes of students.

The call of connection

Six weeks after she was back in the U.S., Jennifer started graduate school. And in 2008, she received her master’s degree in public and international affairs from Princeton University. Shortly after, she earned a job offer with a company in Washington, D.C., but the field and its direct connection to people continued to call to her. Instead of staying in the States, she took a position with The Carter Center’s Guinea Worm Eradication Program in South Sudan.

“It was an amazing opportunity to work on an eradication program, and Guinea worm is set to be the only disease ever eradicated without a vaccine,” Jennifer says. “It was an amazing opportunity to work on something really monumental.”

Here’s where those inclined to queasiness might falter. Although she managed a team of field officers and collected and analyzed data, she also personally treated those infected with the disease. Many people in the developed world are unfamiliar with Guinea worm, but the worm is transmitted via contaminated water, and it spends up to a year living in a host’s body after the water has been consumed. The worm then migrates, typically to an extremity, and forms a blister. This blister burns, and the common response is an understandable one: To immerse the blister in water. This signals the worm to release its larvae into the water, thus continuing the cycle of contamination.

Jennifer’s program aimed to break this cycle by finding cases of Guinea worm, isolating them, and treating them. In addition to her other work, Jennifer established an in-patient clinic for Guinea worm cases, which can take a long time to fully resolve.

“I had one little girl who had 36 worms that we had to physically remove from her over the course of one year,” she recalls.

And while she had to manage roughly 480 cases during her time in South Sudan, she talks with pride about how much the disease has been diminished. According to The Carter Center, the disease affected as many as 3.5 million people in 1986; there were just 30 cases reported in 2017, none of which were reported in South Sudan.

Jennifer is always thinking about the numbers and the whys behind them.
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Looking past the data

Our lives are filled with numbers, but most of us don’t bother to analyze them, or even think about them beyond making sure there are enough zeros to cover the mortgage or keep the lights on.

But Jennifer is always thinking about the numbers and the whys behind them. If a priority health product’s sales are low, she looks for an answer. Is it a supply problem? A demand problem? She has to make sure she’s asking the right questions and analyzing the answers in the right way, or people will continue to suffer.

As she tells me about the different countries and projects she has worked on, she can’t help but keep it grounded in the specifics of her job: numbers of volunteers, this many beneficiaries, this many countries. Numbers, in a way, keep Jennifer doing what she does. But numbers tell only one part of a larger story, and Jennifer makes sure not to lose sight of that. After all, the other side of the equation is the people she’s helping.

And when she describes children afflicted with Guinea worm or mothers who have lost children to malaria, she doesn’t get lost in sadness or despair. Instead, she talks about the person who ran outside to give her yams in thanks for her work on malaria prevention. She talks about the sheer joy she felt from a good rainstorm in Ghana, when collecting rainfall was her main water supply. When I ask if she gets frustrated or feels helpless sometimes, seeing what she sees, knowing that children can and do die from something as simple as diarrhea, she seems almost surprised by the question. Why would she get frustrated? She is focused on the good, the work, the progress. If there is some greater equation going on, Jennifer tries to see ahead to the solution.

Or perhaps she’s just seeing past the numbers to the people behind them. The children. The mothers. Recently, she became a mother herself. And that’s meant no travel for the past year and a half, but now Jennifer is ready to go back to the field. To go back to Africa.

This time, however, she’s not going to live alone in a remote village. Her husband and daughter will be moving with her to the Malawi capital of Lilongwe this spring, when she takes on the role of chief of party for the USAID-funded VectorLink Project, which focuses on malaria prevention. This new job represents a significant promotion, and an honor to be made chief of party — essentially head of project — so young. Although being chief of party and parenting a toddler at the same time will be challenging, Jennifer is excited.

“Especially now that I have a kid of my own, I think about, as a mom, wanting to keep my kid safe and healthy,” she says. “And I get to work on projects that help moms keep their kids safe and healthy, whether that’s malaria prevention or whether that’s making sure that mothers have access to oral rehydration salts and zinc for when their kids have diarrhea. And that actually saves lives. That’s a pretty cool thing to be a part of.”

Jennifer Garrett

Jennifer Garrett is a freelance writer and editor living in the Boston area. With more than 15 years of experience, her work has covered a wide range of subjects, from topics in higher education to the real estate and mortgage industries. Connect with her on LinkedIn or reach her at