Professor Patricia Thomas, the Knight Chair in Health and Medical Journalism, teaches her students 21st century skills while also emphasizing bedrock principles of journalism, such as integrity and accuracy.
Where did you earn degrees and what are your current responsibilities at UGA?
I have a B.A. in English from the University of California-Berkeley and a master’s in journalism and mass communication from Stanford University. Now I’m a professor of journalism and director of the master’s concentration in health and medical journalism at UGA’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. I’m also part of interdisciplinary programs aimed at combating obesity, helping researchers communicate more effectively, and raising public awareness of domestic and global health concerns.
When did you come to UGA and what brought you here?
I moved to Athens in August 2005. Boston had been my adopted home for many years when I saw the job posting for UGA’s new Knight Chair in Health and Medical Journalism. The mission was irresistible: strengthening health coverage in the South, helping experts communicate more clearly with the public, and launching a new graduate program. For decades I had been a reporter, editor and author. I had lots of experience translating science for regular folks, and during a visiting scholar year at Boston University I had fallen in love with grad students and teaching. Rural Florida is my family’s home, and returning to the South also appealed. My undergrad honors thesis was about Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers and Eudora Welty—three great American writers who happened to be Southerners—and my master’s thesis analyzed popular magazine coverage of rock music. So maybe I was meant to live in Athens, where writers and musicians are everywhere.
What are your favorite courses and why?
I’m excited about everything I teach. In “Graduate Newsroom,” a fundamentals course for students with no previous journalism training or experience, it’s amazing to see a biochemist morph into a reporter. And in this class I see the blossoming of international students who are accustomed to state-run media when they hit the streets and practice journalism American style. I obsess about my two specialized health and medical journalism (HMJ) courses, updating them constantly to keep pace with what’s happening in science and health care. I lose sleep over this and try to get it right. Although skimpy research or bad judgment on the entertainment beat rarely has serious consequences, the stakes are higher for HMJ graduates. The stories they tell can empower people to make wise decisions or provide excuses for taking avoidable risks.
What interests you about your field?
I’ve loved journalism since junior high school, and its practice has been central to my life. Long before the Internet unleashed an undifferentiated flood of information, people struggled to make sense of the world and to navigate their domestic and civic lives. Journalism helps construct roadmaps. Good reporters review the documents, interview experts and stakeholders, and use their powers of observation. They turn what they’ve learned into interesting stories that leave the reader or viewer saying, “Wow. I didn’t know that.” Stories about disciplines rooted in scientific discovery are the coolest to me. Whether they study plant biology or physics, researchers are trying to fathom how the world works. Down the road, what’s learned in the lab may turn into a new way to generate energy or a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Who knows? And that’s why covering the sciences is the best job ever.
What are some highlights of your career at UGA?
Because I believe so strongly that journalists and scientists need to be connected, I was honored to speak at the dedication of the Paul D. Coverdell Center for Biomedical and Health Sciences in April 2006. The official approval of the HMJ master’s concentration in 2009 was a milestone. Helping mobilize UGA to sponsor national journalism events has also been gratifying. In 2009, the university hosted the New America Media EXPO and Awards, which brings together ethnic news organizations from across the United States. Three years later we joined Emory University and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta to bring 700 health reporters and editors to Atlanta for the 2012 Association of Health Care Journalists annual conference. These are the largest professional meetings in their sectors, and participation raised our national profile.
How does your research or scholarship inspire your teaching, and vice versa?
Research is a relatively small part of my UGA portfolio, but I’ve teamed up with scholarly colleagues to investigate health concerns and information seeking behavior among low-income, medically underserved populations in Georgia and Alabama. We’ve also examined where patients of free or low-cost clinics go to answer their personal health questions. That study, done several years ago, showed that reliance on mobile devices cuts across class lines. This type of research helps health communicators and health journalists figure out how to reach target audiences.
What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?
I hope they leave with practical skills and some higher values. For starters, don’t make stuff up. Getting the facts right still matters more than being first. Hold the powerful accountable. Remember that what you include in a print or video story can harm regular people who took a risk by talking to a green reporter. Ideally, my students will graduate as well-trained professionals with old-school values such as integrity and collegiality. And I want them to have 21st century skills, too, such as using words, pictures and interactive graphics to make stories come alive. That’s why HMJ students are encouraged to learn about social media and about data analysis and visualization.
Describe your ideal student.
Curious. Passionate. Empathetic. Skeptical. Someone with a nagging voice in the back of her brain, a voice that sounds suspiciously like mine, asking “how do you know this is true?” Sometimes students have these traits but don’t realize it. It’s a huge thrill when I can help these young adults recognize their strengths and act on them.
Favorite place to be/thing to do on campus is…
I love the simple and serene interior of the UGA Chapel, right down to its creaky wooden floors. My friend Dan Colley and I have hosted a lecture series on global diseases in the Chapel since spring 2006. Being in that room makes me feel connected to a rich intellectual tradition, and the space itself seems to amplify truths spoken from that stage.
Beyond the UGA campus, I like to…
My Italian grandmother made me a gardener and a cook. Cares fall away when I’m digging, pruning or otherwise tending the perennials, flowering shrubs and conifers in my overly ambitious ornamental gardens. The highlight of my week is the Athens Farmers Market on Saturday morning. I start with a list of ingredients, but I’m open to surprises. If there’s something unusual on offer—garlic scapes, wild mushrooms, odd roots or legumes—I won’t be able to resist and menus will be upended. I socialize with vendors and other regular shoppers, and my mother—who is in her 80s—comes along to listen to music and enjoy a croissant. No matter how busy I’ve been, or how tired I think I am on Friday night, going to the market early on Saturday is a joy.
Community/civic involvement includes….
The high rate of poverty in Athens astonished me when I arrived in 2005, and I joined hundreds of other residents in a massive community effort called Partners for a Prosperous Athens. Not every seed planted by this group took root, but I’ve stayed active with the team focused on community health and reducing health disparities. I’m an active member of the Athens Health Network today, and my students cover many of its programs for local and statewide media.
Favorite book/movie (and why)?
How can an English major have a favorite book? That seems impossible to me. The book I most wish I had written is Anne Fadiman’s “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down,” a brilliant nonfiction book about medicine and culture. On vacation, though, I’m all about whatever is hot in literary fiction. My favorite movie of all time is “Lawrence of Arabia.” It has epic sweep and moments of heartbreaking intimacy. It is wonderfully acted, the cinematography and editing is unparalleled, the score is unforgettable and the soundtrack is stunning. If you doubt me, see it on a 70 mm screen.
Proudest moment at UGA?
I get a huge rush whenever I open a print publication or click on a website and see a story by one of my students. I never get over this, whether I’m reading The Flagpole or looking at a news feed from Georgia Health News, Online Athens or the Scientific American blog network. These young journalists are part of the civic conversation and somewhere a reader or viewer is saying, “Wow. I didn’t know that.” I’m also proud of the professional success of HMJ program graduates. They work as professional journalists in print and television, as health communicators for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other agencies, and as science or medical writers for universities, medical associations and research organizations. A few are completing Ph.D. programs because they want to conduct research in areas such as health communication or public health.
Originally published on September 7, 2014