Shelley Clark, Assistant Professor in the Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy StudiesBy Steve Koppes
Shelley Clark tackles the really big problems, including HIV/AIDS in Africa, child and maternal health in low-income settings, and teaching Statistical Methods for Policy Research II in the Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies.
Yes, teaching Statistical Methods really can be a major problem. Students often respond to numbers with either boredom or terror, says Clark, Assistant Professor in the Harris School. Yet they need to know regression analysis, econometrics and other statistical techniques if they hope to make headway after graduation against today’s pressing societal and global issues.
“I’m seeing from my own work in the real world that numbers really, really matter,” Clark says. “People who are able to understand and use numbers have a tremendous advantage and end up with much better policies as a result.”
Her students apparently agree. Harris School students have voted Clark Best Teacher in a Core Course for 2005.
Statistical Methods II, a required course in the first year of the Harris School’s Master of Public Policy program, carries an enrollment of as many as 120 students. Upon entering the program, many of the students habitually skip the statistical tables they encounter in a report, preferring to simply read the text. “By the end of this class, I want them to be able to read the tables and know what the text at least should say if it’s interpreting the tables correctly and honestly,” Clark says.
A demographer by training, Clark has made a career of working with numbers. She has seen firsthand how seemingly abstract data can affect people’s lives, depending on how those data are translated into policy. Her job, she says, is to help students understand the power and beauty of numbers. “They aren’t just these cold, sterile, abstract symbols. Statistics have real meaning behind them.”
Clark also teaches a course on International Health, which deals with HIV/AIDS, child and maternal health, tuberculosis, and other public health issues in low-income settings. “These are some of the largest, most important global issues in terms of the number of people affected by them, but they are also problems with tremendous scope for intervention and improvement if only a little more attention was directed at them,” she says.
Her own research in international health has led to some surprising findings. In the September 2004 issue of Studies in Family Planning, she published an article that showed, counter-intuitively, that early marriage is actually associated with an increased risk of HIV infection among sexually-active adolescent girls in two urban centers in Kenya and Zambia.
Clark has been researching such issues for a decade. She served at the Population Council in New York City in a variety of consulting and research capacities from 1995 to 2001. And since joining the Harris School faculty in 2002, she has begun consulting for the MacArthur Foundation and the World Health Organization. All three organizations are extensively involved in addressing international health and related issues.
Through her students, Clark’s influence will extend far beyond her contributions to these organizations. Most Harris School graduates leave academia for careers in public policy, carrying with them the skills and perspectives provided by Clark and her colleagues.
“I think that the students are terrific here,” she says. “The students who come to a public policy school really want to make a difference, and I just love working with students like that and thinking that you are giving them skills to more effectively make these changes.”