Stern is Chief Data Scientist at the Urban Institute, where she leads a team of data scientists to leverage analytical tools to expand the universe of available data.
Headshot of Alena Stern
Alena Stern

"I came to policy school to improve people's lives,” said Alena Stern, MSCAPP’19 and Chief Data Scientist at the Urban Institute, “I became interested in doing so through the intersection of technology and public policy shortly after finishing undergrad.”

After earning her bachelor’s in international relations and economics from the College of William & Mary in 2012, Stern joined AidData, a research lab at William & Mary. As a project manager, she focused on data-driven decision-making in international development and building technology to make data more transparent and useful for analysis. “I saw the opportunity to use data and technology to implement public policy and improve people's lives, but I knew I needed to develop technical and computational skills to capitalize on those opportunities.”

When researching graduate programs, Stern said the UChicago Harris Master of Science in Computational Analysis and Public Policy (MSCAPP) program stood out because of its unique blend of data science and public policy.

“I appreciated that the MSCAPP program emphasized technical skills in the context of public policy. Data scientists benefit greatly from having the ability to understand and empathize with the end user—and to be able to communicate data science findings into policy actions. I appreciated the intersection of rigorous technical work and translating that into policy applications."

While at Harris, Stern said the academic rigor and vibrant community enriched her UChicago experience—and her personal and professional network. "Getting to be a part of Harris was the best of both worlds: MSCAPP is a smaller program, yet part of a larger school with an abundance of resources. Plus, grad school is definitely a team sport. I gained so much from offering support and leaning on—and learning from—my peers in return."

Stern also appreciated Harris Policy Labs—where teams of second-year Harris students apply the rigorous Core curriculum to real-time public policy challenges facing client organizations. “We collaborated with the City of Chicago on developing a machine learning model to analyze dangerous driving behaviors. This project highlighted the complexities of using data science while balancing the needs of tech and government."

The Career Development Office, Stern said, proved to be an invaluable asset. “The CDO team helped me sharpen my resume, cover letter, and elevator pitch, and connected me to an amazing alumni community, where people share experiences available to Harris students and alumni.”

Now, as Chief Data Scientist at the Urban Institute, Stern leads a team of eleven data scientists, leveraging analytical tools to expand the universe of available data, improve the efficiency of research, and more effectively put data and evidence into the hands of changemakers. “For example, I am part of a team that built a data tool powered by cloud computing that makes rigorous equity analysis more accessible to policymakers and communities.  My work on that project would not have been possible without the skills I gained from Harris.”

Stern said she’s excited to continue exploring where data and tech can make policy more effective and improve people's lives. “I'm also excited to keep thinking about how I can grow with my team. Harris prepared me well for continuous learning, adaptability, and flexibility, which feels especially salient in policy and data science fields."