Pat Thomas is retiring this summer after creating the Health and Medical Journalism graduate program twelve years ago. (Photo/Dorothy Kozlowski)
Grady professor teaches students to communicate science effectively
The following was originally a Faculty Profile in the May 15, 2017, UGA Columns newspaper.
Biographical Box: Patricia Thomas Knight Chair in Health and Medical Journalism Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, Department of Journalism Years at the University of Georgia: 12 Degrees: Stanford University, Masters in Communication, 1970 University of California at Berkeley, Bachelor of Arts in English, 1969
When Pat Thomas read the online posting for the newly-created Knight Chair at the University of Georgia, she felt that all her life experiences had prepared her for this job.
“From the minute I saw this job description I thought, ‘wow, I have what they are looking for,’” Thomas said.
UGA wanted an experienced journalist tuned in to health disparities in the South, who could help graduate students, researchers and public health professionals communicate more effectively.
Over the past 12 years, creating Grady’s graduate program in health and medical journalism has been her focus. Thomas came up with a curriculum that emphasizes evidence-based reporting and empathic storytelling.
“I think of it as scientifically-based coverage of subjects that are intensely personal,” Thomas said. “We all have illnesses and loved ones with illnesses we wish they didn’t have. We need to empower the public with good information about these things. That’s the kind of reporters that I am trying to train.”
For example, Thomas makes sure students come face-to-face with health disparities in the region. In 2007, HMJ students traveled to New Orleans to report on the rebuilding of healthcare two years after Katrina. More recently, she led reporting trips to rural areas of Georgia, where students generated multimedia stories about poverty and health for Georgia Health News.
Thomas is also passionate about diseases of neglected people around the world. She spent four years researching “Big Shot: Passion, Politics, and the Struggle for an AIDS Vaccine,” which was included on the Washington Post’s list of notable books in 2001.
Thomas and Dan Colley, the recently retired director of the Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases, teamed up to direct the “Global Diseases: Voices from the Vanguard” series for the past 12 years. They have brought 46 internationally-known speakers to UGA including researchers, journalists, authors, filmmakers and communication directors from WHO and CDC.
“I hope we have communicated that you don’t have to be a scientist or a doctor to help. You can help if you are a journalist or communicator,” Thomas said.
Thomas has been part of a UGA Graduate School initiative that help faculty researchers and graduate students discover new ways to communicate their research stories.
This training is an area she knows well from her career before UGA. Thomas was the first woman editor of the Harvard Health Letter and a contributor to a host of magazines and newsletters. She had also been a Knight Science Journalism fellow at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a visiting scholar at the Knight Center for Science and Medical Journalism at Boston University.
Despite her history with private institutions, The University of Georgia’s land-grant mission holds a special appeal for Thomas.
“I have met so many wonderful researchers in the sciences at UGA who do important work here,” Thomas continued. “It’s a land-grant institution and it is an obligation to try to make life better for the citizens of your state.”
Thomas lives by this mission of helping others in her personal life, as well. In addition to serving on the editorial board of the UGA Press for several years, Thomas was active in the original Partnership in a Prosperous Athens, and its offspring, Athens Health Network.
“In a town with a 30% poverty rate, we need to think about our neighbors a little more,” Thomas said. “We are all on the same ship.”
Earlier this year, Thomas announced her retirement. While she plans to continue writing, she looks forward to “reading that 3-foot-wide shelf of books that I have purchased, but not read.”
In the meantime, Thomas has a legacy of graduates who will continue the vital work of shedding light on untold health issues.
“I have seen graduates in my program do wonderful things,” Thomas concluded, “and, I expect them to continue to do wonderful things by turning science into stories that people can relate to.”
Entertainment, Children’s & Youth Winners Named for Peabody 30
The Fred Rogers Company Honored with Institutional Award The Peabody Awards Board of Jurors revealed today nine Entertainment winners, including Children’s & Youth, for programs released in 2017. Honorees include a dystopian look at the United States, a 1950s female comedian who runs afoul of decency laws, innovative reflections on diversity from up-and-coming voices, and […] learn more
Tenth edition of “The Law of Public Communication” published
To have three or four editions of a textbook published is quite an accomplishment. To have ten editions of the same textbook published is very rare. For Bill Lee, professor of journalism, and Kent Middleton, the founding author and professor emeritus of journalism, publishing the 10th edition of “The Law of Public Communication,” represents nearly […] learn more
Nine Documentaries Selected for the Peabody 30
Compelling stories address issues of the day, including gun violence, climate change and immigration The Peabody Awards Board of Jurors revealed today nine winners in the Documentary category for programs released in 2017. The honorees, part of the annual Peabody 30, include stories that give insight to the lingering grief of communities after mass shootings, […] learn more
Carol Burnett Receives Peabody Career Achievement Award
Beloved TV icon will be honored during 77th Annual Peabody Awards ceremony on May 19 in New York City The Peabody Awards Board of Jurors have selected Carol Burnett to receive the first-ever Peabody Career Achievement, presented by Mercedes-Benz. The honor is reserved for individuals whose work and commitment to broadcast media has left an […] learn more
77th Annual Peabody Awards Nominate Best in Storytelling
60 Nominees Represent Most Compelling and Empowering Electronic Media for 2017 Hasan Minhaj of “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” to host awards ceremony on May 19 in New York City The Peabody Awards Board of Jurors have selected 60 nominees that represent the most compelling and empowering stories released in electronic media during 2017. […] learn more