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Updated 10:00 AM July 27, 2009

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Spotlight: Public Health Practice staffer keeps busy helping others

Dana Thomas, the student affairs project manager in the Office of Public Health Practice, has a complaint about her job: "There's just not enough time in the work day!"
(Photo by Austin Thomason, U-M Photo Services)

Among other things, Thomas is involved in coordinating and managing trips through the Public Health Action Support Team (PHAST), a program designed to deploy students to local health departments in times of need.

She has traveled with PHAST four times since 2006 to areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

In Baton Rouge she worked with students to help dentists locate dental records of the deceased; in New Orleans the group helped map available food locations; in Biloxi, Miss., the group conducted interviews to assess the capacity of organizations' relief efforts; and returning to Biloxi, the group interviewed residents to assess their health status post Katrina.

While Thomas expresses dismay that there still is such widespread damage on the Gulf Coast, she also describes how this "awesome project" gives her students "a valuable experience, the opportunity to gain practical public health exposure," besides offering much-needed assistance.

When describing another of her various duties — internship coordinator at the School of Public Health (SPH) — she can't resist discussing her students' accomplishments.

Thomas helps SPH students obtain paid internships in community-based health departments. Ninety-nine percent of them are in Michigan, which, Thomas notes, is "truly a beautiful thing."

"Not only do the students in the internship program get these wonderful experiences, but it is also a chance to promote the potential Michigan work force," Thomas says.

After graduating from Wayne State University, Thomas, a Detroit native, worked in the U-M Department of Pediatric Gastroenterology as a research secretary. With some encouragement from her coworkers, she decided to enter the graduate program at SPH and completed her master's degree in 2005.

After graduation, she stayed at U-M because, "I really wanted to help provide experiences to students based on what I learned U+00E2U+0080U+00A6 in the program."

With that in mind, she tries to create an inviting office environment, much like the office of the director of student services she visited as a student.

Thomas frequently finds her space filled with students looking for guidance. "They come and stay awhile, probably because I am a friendly ear and a friendly voice, " Thomas says.

The students she helps seem to enjoy her bubbly personality, as Thomas often receives thank-you notes from them, something that "always surprises" her.

"By getting to know these students for two years, I end up mentoring without realizing it. You don't realize your impact at first, but it's nice to know you made a difference," Thomas says.

Another program Thomas is involved in is an exchange program with the Center for Disease Control in Tianjin, China.

She recently accompanied a group of 30 SPH students to China to learn about the environmental and cultural differences in their health practices.

Through PHAST, Thomas also helps coordinate student training in SPH. This involves emergency preparedness exercises, such as working at emergency flu clinics.

In addition to all her other roles, Thomas acts as a community-based liaison for Community-Based Public Health, which involves facilitating relationships with non-profit public health entities, such as health departments and community-based organizations.

"No day is the same," Thomas says, "which is a good thing."

The weekly Spotlight features staff members at the university. To nominate a candidate, please contact the Record staff at

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