Growing up in Ottawa, Canada, Sean Clarke dreamed of becoming a scientist. Doing volunteer work at hospitals as a college student convinced him that nursing was his destiny. But it was while he was pursuing his doctorate that Clarke’s fascination with science put him on a path to conducting groundbreaking research on patients and the people who care for them.

“I began to see ways to use research to ask questions that are central to the professional issues that drive nursing,” says Clarke, who came to the Connell School of Nursing this fall as a professor and associate dean for undergraduate programs.

Clarke is an internationally recognized expert on the makeup and management of nursing organizations and how they affect patient health and safety. He also studies the well-being of nurses; for example, how factors such as staffing levels influence patient mortality. Clarke’s research has bolstered lobbying efforts by nursing associations to enact legislation aimed at ensuring appropriate nurse-patient ratios, such as the law Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick signed in June that limits the number of patients assigned to registered nurses in hospital intensive-care units. Clarke has also investigated issues that directly affect nurses’ working lives, from the risk of sharps injuries to job burnout.

At a time when hospital administrators are under pressure to improve patient safety while curbing spending, Clarke maintains that data has never been more important. “The purpose of research is to drive practice decisions, but it’s also to drive management decisions,” he says. “I think we have an obligation to think about what kinds of data are going to facilitate better decisions in the long run that will be in patients’ interests.”

Clarke’s research suggests “that simply adding more staff to a nursing unit won’t necessarily improve patient outcomes. What’s needed is the right mix of nurses, led by managers who create a healthy, positive work environment.”

Outgoing, energetic, and an engaging conversationalist, Clarke’s research focus and personality make him a perfect fit for Boston College according to Susan Gennaro, dean of the Connell School. “Sean looks at the way care is delivered and asks whether there is a better way to deliver it,” says Gennaro, who has known Clarke since the 1990s. “He’s very intelligent and motivated, but also very caring and concerned. A perfect blend of the right and left brain.”

Clarke became interested in nursing while attending the University of Ottawa, where he received his bachelor’s degree in 1988. He pursued a master’s and a doctorate in nursing at McGill University in Montreal, where he worked closely with Nancy Frasure-Smith, a noted social scientist who studies how psychological factors influence the risk for cardiovascular disease. “That’s where I learned how to ask research questions and use big data sets to get answers,” says Clarke.

Clarke did post-doctoral work at the University of Pennsylvania, where he eventually became an associate professor. At Penn, his mentor was Professor of Nursing and Sociology Linda Aiken, known for her seminal research on the impact of, and remedies for, nursing shortages. A number of his 118 published articles are collaborations with Aiken. They include a pair of massive studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that were among the first to quantify how nursing performance and working conditions affect patient outcomes.

In one, for example, Clarke and his colleagues showed that hospitals with high patient-to-nurse ratios tend to have relatively higher mortality rates among surgery patients.

At the same time, Clarke cautions that common assumptions about nursing and patient well-being are often too simplistic. “People would like to believe that it’s a very straightforward set of circumstances that tell us whether patients will do well or not do well,” says Clarke. To the contrary, his research suggests that simply adding more staff to a nursing unit, for example, won’t necessarily improve patient outcomes. What’s needed is the right mix of nurses, led by managers who create a healthy, positive work environment.

In 2008, Clarke was named an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing. At Bloomberg, his lectures were wildly popular. “Few students skip class even though they don’t need to show up; Clarke records all of his lectures and posts them online,” noted the Bloomberg School’s magazine, Pulse. “It’s not the same—he’s better in person,” student Stephen Ng told the magazine. “Sean makes a potentially boring course super fun.”

Clarke returned to McGill in 2012 to become the first director of the university’s new Nursing Collaborative for Education and Innovation in Patient and Family-Centered Care, created to strengthen ties between the schools of nursing and medicine. But when approached about the associate dean post at the Connell School, Clarke was intrigued. (So was his wife, Beth McNutt-Clarke, an advanced practice nurse who specializes in wound management and who comes to the Connell School as a clinical instructor, teaching community health.)

Clarke says he is eager to collaborate on research with new colleagues at Boston-area hospitals. “Other cities are health care hubs,” he observes, “but Boston is first on everybody’s list to be a researcher and health professional.” However, it was his new role at the Connell School that convinced Clarke to pack up the house and make the move from Montreal. “I was aware of the excellent tradition of undergraduate education BC has. The school seems to be a place where a lot of people with different backgrounds all find ways to contribute to the mission,” says Clarke. “That was really appealing to me.” ✹

—Timothy Gower, photograph by Caitlin Cunningham