Grady College faculty member studies media consumption

The following was written for UGA Columns and UGA Today.

As a faculty member, Bart ­Wojdynski derives satisfaction from seeing the switch flipped within the minds of his students.

“I love watching students develop interests they didn’t know they had,” he said. “My goal is to try to meet students at the intersection of what they want out of a class and where they might want to go in the future.”

Coincidentally, that is exactly what happened to him in a research methods class at the beginning of his master’s program that led to his career. The lightbulb moment happened when he realized he would not have to choose between being a journalist or a social scientist, but instead could study the social science of how people understand journalism and other digital media.

Since then, Wojdynski has been on a fast track, teaching digital design and media research classes while conducting experiments to understand the role of design and attention in how consumers’ attitudes are shaped by media content. In ­addition to the ­coding classes where he teaches journalism students content creation in HTML, CSS and JavaScript, he also teaches courses in data visualization, digital media design and media psychology.

Whether he is teaching a traditional in-person class or one that’s online, a format he has worked with since his first faculty position at Virginia Tech, he said he feels fortunate to be teaching classes in his wheelhouse.

Much of Wojdynski’s research involves conducting eye-tracking studies on digital news and advertising, which follow and measure how people view on-screen information within fractions of a second. He was first exposed to eye tracking in 2008 while at UNC assisting a faculty mentor with a grant exploring how online news consumers used content like story carousels, audio slideshows and homepage hyperlinks. The main goals were to establish how readers recalled content and whether they were persuaded.

Wojdynski maintained an interest in eye-tracking research throughout his doctoral program and his two years as an assistant professor at Virginia Tech, but it wasn’t until he started teaching at the University of Georgia that he was able to conduct his own eye-tracking research and work with doctoral students on their own projects.

Wojdynski said that the move to UGA was appealing not only because of the reputation UGA has, but also the strong communication research and Ph.D. program at Grady College. The fact that Grady was willing to investigate what would be involved in establishing an eye-tracking lab was an added benefit.

With support from the college and university, Wojdynski started the Digital Media Attention and Cognition Lab in his first semester at UGA. Since then, Wojdynski has been mentoring doctoral students in designing media research experiments in a highly collaborative, teaching hospital-type environment.

Wojdynski, who was recently promoted to associate professor with tenure, is equally energized by using his research and that of others to inform his teaching.

“I try to show my students how humans look at content and what messages they come away with,” he said. “Whether I am teaching designers, writers or videographers, I hope they come away from my class with the desire to bring a little more of a human-centered, evidence-based perspective to the content they create.”

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.”