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.

Focus on Faculty; Patrica Thomas with graduate student Hyacinth Empinado (health and medical journalism)
Pat Thomas advises Hyacinth Empinado (MA ’14) on a project. (Photo/Dorothy Kozlowski)

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.”

Date: May 17, 2017
Author:  Sarah Freeman,