Bryan Viewpoints Speakers share perspectives on global health, development

Claire Smith

This year, the Babson Center for Global Commerce welcomed two Bryan Viewpoints Speakers to campus for two days of lectures and conversation. Marcella McClatchey, a program officer of agricultural development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, delivered a lecture on agricultural innovation in international development. Ryan Shackleton (C’ 99), a software developer at the Institutes for Health Metrics and Evaluation, presented on data visualization in global public health research.

McClatchey and Shackleton, a married couple now living in Seattle, Washington, both attended liberal arts universities and worked in private sector jobs before transitioning to work in global development and global health.

McClatchey graduated from Amherst College with a BA in religion and international relations and from Duke University with a Master of Public Policy in International Development. Before working at the Gates Foundation, McClatchey was a strategy consultant in two private sector firms, Accenture and Booz Allen Hamilton. “It was at Duke that I really solidified my core career interest in working in development,” McClatchey said. However, McClatchey wanted to first work in the private sector to build what she calls “a core consulting skill set” around problem solving, communication, and presentation skills.

McClatchey now develops strategies to support small-scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia as an officer of Inclusive Markets under the Agricultural Development team at the Gates Foundation. Gates Foundation is “one step removed” from direct work “on the ground,” McClatchey explained, and instead offers strategy and grants to a network of partners.

McClatchey’s role is to provide strategy, manage investment portfolios, and build relationships to support partner organizations that work directly with producers. “Cross cultural communication is essentially critical to my job,” McClatchey said. “It’s important to approach those conversations with respect and humility and a willingness to be open to other perspectives.”

Currently, McClatchey’s work at the Gates Foundation is focused on helping small-scale producers on “the front lines of climate change” adapt to new challenges. “We invest in innovations and technologies that provide farmers with better inputs, such as drought- or flood-tolerant seeds, or agronomic inputs that help them better manage their farms,” McClatchey said. 

In addition to providing grants and investments to help small-scale producers, she said “we try to leverage the Foundation’s name and our voice to draw attention to the importance of climate adaptation and the risks that climate change poses to the development goals that we’ve all worked so hard on.”

McClatchey presented on her experience as a program officer in agricultural development on Thursday, September 30 in a lecture titled “Investing for Resilience: How the Gates Foundation is Driving Agricultural Innovation.”

Shackleton graduated from the University of the South with a BS in geology. Before discovering a passion for data visualization, Shackleton was modelling the mechanics of rock folding and fracturing as a PhD candidate at University of Alaska, Fairbanks. This led to an internship at Midland Valley Exploration, a Scottish software and consulting firm for the oil and gas industry.

Shackleton and McClatchey moved to Seattle to find jobs together, hoping to avoid the “two body problem” many married couples while searching for employment. Shackleton said that he started to shift his career to focus on the data visualization world, and was inspired by Marcella’s work in the non profit space. “Her work seemed a lot more fulfilling than working for the oil industry, so I definitely moved in that direction because it looked very appealing.”

This led Shackleton to apply for a job at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), which was also launched by the Gates Foundation. Shackleton develops research tools and data visualizations both for lay audiences and global health researchers to parse “very dense” data into useful parts.

“My passion was more the data storytelling work,” he said. This entails highlighting useful data information through graphics or “scrollytelling” to make data understandable for general audiences and policy makers. 

“You sort of have to tailor the data and the view to sort of empathize with other people and think about what their background is, what they might know, what they might not know, and how to make things understandable for them,” Shackleton said.

IHME pivoted to dedicate resources to analyze public health data and create visuals to understand the infection and mortality rates of COVID-19. In the spring of 2020, IHME published a widely-cited model of COVID infection and death rates. Soon after the model was published, the Trump administration contacted the head of IHME to get more information for its COVID task force. Shackleton said that the IHME model was important in convincing Trump to reverse his policy of re-opening the country by Easter and extend social distancing measures.

“That was super exciting as a database person because we talked a lot about using data to change policy,” Shackleton said. “When the pandemic came, it was pretty clear to everyone in the organization that this is our time to buckle down.”

Shackleton presented his lecture, “Data Analysis and Visualization: Pushing the Boundaries to Extract Meaning and Value,” on October 1.

Both Shackleton and McClatchey spoke on the value of a liberal arts education in providing adaptability to their careers. “There’s some similarities to the goals of a liberal arts education and as a consultant coming into a firm,” McClatchey said. “You work on really building a set of skills that can be applied to a lot of different problems and professional environments.”

“One of the things that really let me leap forward was having incredibly nurturing faculty and being in an environment where learning was so encouraged,” Shackleton said of his time at Sewanee. “You feel like ‘I have the confidence to figure things out, and I can do these things.’”

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