Making her way

TDR news item
24 January 2014

Dr Saw Saw, a Burmese social scientist and TDR grantee, is helping her native Myanmar address the challenge of tuberculosis. Her research and work with patient self help groups has led to changes in the national tuberculosis programme, and she is now looking beyond her country.

Saw Saw with her poster on public-private partnerships for TB control in Myanmar at the 2nd Global Symposium on Health Systems Research in Beijing, 2012.

By the time she was 10 years old, Dr Saw Saw knew she wanted to follow in the footsteps of her mother, Su Su, a nuclear physicist and one of the few female scientists in what was then Burma.

“She’s always been my role model and my biggest supporter,” says Saw Saw, a TDR grantee who completed her PhD at the University of Melbourne in Australia, exactly thirty years after Su Su did the same. “Studying at Melbourne was my dream when I was young, but I did not really expect that it would come true.”

Now the deputy director of Medical Statistics Division in the Department of Medical Research-Lower Myanmar (DMR-LM), part of the Myanmar Ministry of Health, Saw Saw has come into her own, carving out a successful career as a public health professional and winning accolades for her contributions to tuberculosis control, including important work on knowledge transfer around TB. That work began in earnest in 2000, she says, when she and colleagues at the DMR received a TDR grant for research capability strengthening to examine existing practices in the management of TB among general practitioners.

Investigating how to improve tuberculosis care

“From that project, I became very interested in TB and in the Public-Private Mix for DOTS (PPM DOTS),” says Saw Saw, referring to the TB control strategy Myanmar adopted in the late 1990s, after it became apparent that a large proportion of TB patients were being treated in private clinics. “So I applied for a TDR research training grant to pursue my PhD at Melbourne, and I got it.” After a year of classes at Melbourne, Saw Saw returned to Myanmar to do fieldwork for her thesis on strategies for public-private partnership for TB control in Myanmar.

"Saw Saw is testimony to the value of TDR support for early career researchers".

Dr Lenore Manderson
Professor of Medical Anthropology, Monash University, Australia

Months later, Saw Saw’s thesis work was recognized with an award for “excellence in knowledge transfer in doctoral studies” given out annually by the Melbourne School of Population Health. “Some of Saw Saw’s findings in relation to organization of the DOTS program have already been taken up by the National Tuberculosis Program and the Myanmar Medical Association—a remarkable feat for a recent PhD thesis,” wrote the members of the awards committee. “This exemplifies the principles of knowledge transfer and, in light of her determination to complete her research under such difficult conditions, is particularly deserving.”

Saw Saw conducts a focus group discussion with a TB patient self-help group in Myanmar.

“Her dedication to public health has been the key factor in her success,” says Dr Than Tun Sein, former director of socio-medical research at the DMR, a professor of anthropology at Yangon University and a longtime mentor to Saw Saw. “She believed that by specializing in this field she could contribute to community development in Myanmar as a service provider, a trainer, a researcher and an advocate for the poor and marginalized.” And Saw Saw has done just that, he adds, describing her as “a ‘woman of principle’—one who observes research ethics to the fullest extent and always strives for harmony among her fellow collaborators.”

A re-entry grant leads to enhanced local control

After earning her PhD, Saw Saw received a TDR re-entry grant to continue her work on township coordination for PPM DOTS, looking at ways to engage general practitioners and public health staff and to forge stronger links between the country’s public and private sectors in order to enhance TB control. One sign of the impact of that work, she says, is that DMR staff, herself included, now regularly collaborate with the National TB Program (NTP) on operational research studies.

Saw Saw interviews a member of a township council in a rural village of southern Myanmar about referring TB patients for treatment.

One such example is the study Saw Saw conducted last year on the “translation of TB research into policy and practice.” That project looked at each step of the process in Myanmar, from the dissemination of research findings to their uptake and utilization by all TB control partners, including patient self-help groups (SHG), World Vision Myanmar, and the NTP. By demonstrating the important role SHGs play in patient referral and diagnosis, that research moved the national TB programme to embrace the groups as a key tool for TB control. And in a poster competition held during the Department of Medical Research’s 50th anniversary celebrations last June, Saw Saw’s poster summarizing that study took the top prize.

Saw Saw believed that by specializing in this field (TB) she could contribute to community development in Myanmar.

Dr Than Tun Sein former Director, Socio-Medical Research, Department of Medical Research, Professor of Anthropology, Yangon University

“Saw Saw is deeply committed to her career as a social scientist and to improving health in her own country,” says Dr Lenore Manderson, a professor of medical anthropology at Monash University in Australia, who supervised Saw Saw’s thesis work at the University of Melbourne and has mentored her since. “And she has had a stellar career, consistently participating in conferences at home and abroad, receiving awards for her papers and posters, publishing her work, and tackling conditions like TB that are highly relevant to population health in Myanmar. Saw Saw is testimony to the value of TDR support for early career researchers.”

Saw Saw will soon begin work on a TDR impact grant, this time equipping her to expand her scope of knowledge and skills by applying the SORT IT (Structured Operational Research Training Initiative) model. So Saw Saw is now using her experiences to move into regional and international efforts. We anticipate hearing more from her in years to come.

For more information, please contact

Jamie Guth
TDR Communications Manager
Telephone: +41 79 441 2289