Shelley Clark, Assistant Professor in the Harris Graduate School of Public Policy StudiesBy Rob McManamy
Numbers mean a lot to Shelley Clark, even more than they do to most of us. And this month, the figures 2, 5, 30, and 842, all are weighing quite heavily on her mind.
This spring, for the second consecutive time in her five years at the University of Chicago’s Irving B. Harris School of Public Policy Studies, Clark was voted “Best Teacher in a Core Class” by the Public Policy Students Association. In less than 30 days, however, she will be traveling 842 miles to assume a new post at McGill University’s Institute for Global Health and Social Policy in Montreal.
“I certainly have mixed emotions,” says Clark, an Assistant Professor in the Harris School since 2002. In that time, by all accounts, she made numbers come alive in class for hundreds of future policy-makers. And now, in turn, the latest class has shown its appreciation.
For Clark, however, making statistical methods interesting is not due to some novel teaching technique or trick of the trade. Instead, she passionately presents statistics as if it were an essential foreign language—a code that unlocks a greater understanding of our world and empowers those who master it with a greater chance to decide the most pressing issues of the day.
“It’s an incredibly powerful tool that we all have at our disposal,” says Clark. “And with social policy in particular, it enables you to hone in on the evidence upon which successful policy should be based. With numbers, you can really communicate a lot in just a little bit of time.”
And such evidence does not always lead where one might expect. For instance, her recent work in sub-Saharan Africa examined how the social institution of marriage there, in which the majority of heterosexual activity occurs, shapes the risks of HIV/AIDS. Counter-intuitively, Clark found that for adolescent girls, marriage does not provide a “safe haven.” Instead, Clark discovered that after marriage, the young girls become acutely vulnerable to HIV.
“Husbands of the girls are often much older and therefore more likely to be infected,” she explains. “(But) condom use within a marriage is seen as a sign of distrust—all of which exposes married young girls to a much higher risk of infection.”
A demographer by training, Clark holds a B.A. in government and foreign affairs from the University of Virginia, and both an M.A. and Ph.D. in public and international affairs from Princeton University.
Prior to joining the Harris School faculty, Clark had worked three years in policy research for the not-for-profit Population Council based in New York City. Since coming to Chicago, she also has served as a consultant to both the World Health Organization, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
During the 2001-2002 school year, Clark also held a National Institute for Child Health and Human Development fellowship at the University’s Population Research Center.
Today, in a politically charged climate that has seen everything from evolution to global warming still debated in the public square, Clark is confident that numbers will eventually win out. For now, though, she points to her least favorite Mark Twain quote: “There are three kinds of lies—lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
Clark argues that, like with words, “statistics don’t lie, but the people who are using them sometimes do. One of the goals of this class is to teach students how to detect when someone is lying with statistics and to be able to counter them using valid methods and solid empirical analyses.”