Following a "non-traditional" introduction to journalism, the MSCAPP student helped inform research that led to Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting.


Damini Sharma, MSCAPP'20

Damini Sharma, MSCAPP’20, was in Chicago in June retrieving some belongings when she got the text. Her former editor was writing to congratulate her. News stories she worked on with a Marshall Project team had won a Pulitzer Prize, one of journalism’s most prestigious awards.

She was initially unconvinced — and waited for a punchline from The Marshall Project Data Editor David Eads. When none came she checked Twitter and verified the news about the National Reporting Pulitzer for “Mauled: When Police Dogs Are Weapons.” It was true.

The project was massive.  A 13-part series, it was a “huge effort,” Sharma said, done by a team of dozens of people from four news organizations, including the New York-based Marshall Project, with whom she began working as a data fellow during a summer internship amid her Master of Science in Computational Analysis and Public Policy (MSCAPP) studies at the Harris School of Public Policy.  

For Sharma, who was once on a path toward a Ph.D. in economics, the foray into data journalism may seem like an unexpected destination. But she doesn’t take the safe routes. Light-bulb moments in cities stretching from Chicago to Rome sent her in new directions, landing her most recently in Silicon Valley where she is a data analyst at Recidiviz, a nonprofit that is building a data platform to drive criminal justice reform.

Sharma has always been pretty sure about where she wanted to head, but the path she would take would be more of a surprise, even for her.

After a childhood spent in countries throughout Asia, Sharma, who is Indian, first thought that an economics degree (which she would earn at the University of Chicago) was her way to make an impact. 

“Development economics was my initial inkling of — it sounds so corny —  a way to do something good in the world,” she said.

After earning her Bachelor of Arts in economics in 2015, Sharma joined consulting firm Cornerstone Research as an analyst. While there, she began thinking about ways to use her economics degree to inform social policy and next headed to Cambridge, Mass., to become a research fellow at Harvard University’s former Education Innovation Laboratory (EdLabs).

“It all clicked at that point,” she said. “This is the thing I’ve been wanting to do.”

On track then to go for a Ph.D., Sharma decided she wasn’t cut out for academia and pivoted. She wanted “to grow in many dimensions” by learning how to do more data analysis, programming and coding — and beefing up her knowledge in statistics. “I wanted something where I would also learn more about public policy institutions and issues,” she said. “I wanted all of that.” 

The two-year MSCAPP program checked all of the boxes. And so Sharma made what she described as “a very exciting turn,” enrolling in the master’s program (which is jointly offered by Harris Public Policy and the University of Chicago Department of Computer Science) and stepping away from education policy and toward criminal justice reform, her interest having been piqued by the school-to-prison pipeline. 

“Whether the issue you’re passionate about is education, homelessness, or poverty, I was starting to realize that all roads lead to incarceration in this country,” she said as she elaborated on the school-to-prison pipeline. Yet, she added, “it is so difficult to do good data work” in the criminal justice space — where data are hard to get and often not standardized.

“Mass incarceration and criminal justice are topics where once you learn about the magnitude of the problem, you simply can’t think of anything else,” she said.

Two internships during her MSCAPP years solidified her focus. First came the work she did for Antigone, an NGO in Rome that promotes human rights within the criminal justice and prison systems. That internship, and the visits to Italian prisons, were eye-opening, she said.

“Working with data, it’s very easy to start to treat people who are probably going through some of the worst times of their lives as data points,” she said. “I think when possible it’s really important to get out there and confront the reality of what’s behind your computer screen.”

That reality convinced her that when she returned to the United States, she wanted to do similar work. While in Italy, she began Googling and found the data reporting internship at The Marshall Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization whose work centers on the U.S. criminal justice system. 

Little did she know the work would culminate in a Pulitzer Prize. It started as a summer position, with the series that would win The Marshall Project (along with Birmingham’s, Indianapolis’ IndyStar and Chicago’s Invisible Institute) a Pulitzer going on in parallel. But Sharma stayed on as a freelancer after the summer, and that’s when she began working on “Mauled.”

The title card for the finished project, as it appears on The Marshall Project website.

Her task was to make data other reporters collected, like court documents and police reports, usable. Data from police departments were designed for cataloguing individual cases rather than collecting data sets. They were in sentence form and on non-editable PDF documents and had to be turned into tables that could be analyzed. Data on how many dog bites occurred in a city or dog-bite rates per capita could then be synthesized by a reporter and used in stories and graphics. 

The data were staggering, telling a story that was as far a cry from Hollywood images of police dogs like Rin Tin Tin as one could imagine. As the series notes, today’s police dogs “have names like Drogo, Missile, Vader, Storm and Rambo” — and can even be trained to be “anti-Black.”

For the series, reporters tracked 150 incidents nationwide from 2010-20, including three cases where a police dog attack actually led to a person’s death. Data showed that many people who are bitten don’t have a weapon, are not accused of violent crimes or aren’t suspects at all. Salt Lake City police suspended using dogs in arrests, the series reported, after video was released of an officer ordering his K-9 to bite a 36-year-old Black man who was on his knees, hands in the air.

“Before this series,” Sharma said, “I didn’t know about the prevalence of these dog attacks. I also didn’t realize these dog bites are not just like little nips. They’re more like shark attacks.”

For Sharma, the “non-traditional” introduction to journalism was another interesting college/career twist.

Anjali Adukia, an assistant professor at Harris, advised Sharma to follow her passions.

“Before college I thought there was a track I needed to be on and a path I had to follow,” she said. But that changed. She matured of course. But she said she also received some “very good advice” while in college  from a mentor, Harris Assistant Professor Anjali Adukia, who, Sharma said, advised her to “follow your interests, follow your passions, follow your heart and at any point, whatever makes sense to you, that’s the thing you are going to be able to do most successfully.”

“I’ve very much taken that to heart.”