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.”

Malaria researcher promotes global efforts to rid disease from endemic areas

Physician and researcher Richard W. Steketee, director of the Malaria Control and Elimination Partnership in Africa MACEPA, has been fascinated by the malaria parasite for 35 years.  On April 11, he will visit the University of Georgia to discuss current efforts to banish the disease from parts of Africa where it has a stubborn hold.

“The United States rid itself of malaria by the early 1950s and certified this accomplishment in 1969.  Between 2000 and 2015, 17 countries eliminated malaria.  This has not yet happened for any of the 44 sub-Saharan African malaria-endemic nations and this is a roadblock to change and progress for an entire continent,” Steketee said.  “I would love to witness that change, and we are getting closer every day—but still need a serious step forward.”

Steketee’s talk, “Eliminating Malaria — Can the Glass Ceiling be Broken?” takes place at 5:30 p.m. in the UGA Chapel.  It is free and open to the public and will be followed by a reception at Demosthenian Hall, next door to the Chapel.

The lecture concludes the 2017 Global Diseases: Voices from the Vanguard series, co-sponsored by the UGA Grady College Health and Medical Journalism graduate program and the UGA Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases.

MACEPA, created in 2004, works to control and eliminate malaria in sub-Saharan African countries where the disease is endemic. Ethiopia, Senegal, and Zambia are its current focus. In addition to leading programs and research studies from PATH headquarters, Steketee has participated in and led numerous programs and research studies in the field.

All told, Steketee has spent more than seven years living in sub-Saharan African countries including Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Senegal, Sudan, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

He has more than 200 peer-reviewed publications and is a scientific contributor and editor for the “Roll Back Malaria Progress and Impact Series,” which produces detailed thematic and country-by-country reports about malaria control and elimination. This reflects his interest in translating science into policy and action.

Before joining MACEPA, Steketee spent 21 years with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and retired after being chief of the malaria branch for five years. He is proficient in French and board certified in both Family Practice and Preventive Medicine.  Steketee earned his BA and MPH from Harvard University and his MD from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.

The annual Global Diseases: Voices from the Vanguard lecture series is co-organized by Patricia Thomas, Knight Chair in Health and Medical Journalism at Grady College, and Daniel G. Colley, professor of microbiology at UGA’s Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases.