Inaugural Excellence in Practice Staff Award given to inspirational public health leader

Dana Thomas

For more than two decades, Dana Thomas has embodied and cultivated in others the spirit of what it means to practice public health and the mission of the Office of Public Health Practice to build and nurture individual, community, and organizational capacity for population health, and equity.

Thomas, program director of the Future Public Health Leaders Program (FPHLP) and director of Student Development and Training for the Office of Global Public Health, was awarded the inaugural Excellence in Practice Staff Award at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

“I’m so pleased that the first person to receive this award is Dana Thomas, as she really has defined Excellence in Public Health Practice for our School of Public Health and inspired many of us, including me,” said Laura Power, director of the Office of Public Health Practice and Preventive Medicine Residency at Michigan Public Health. “This award complements the annual Excellence in Teaching and Excellence in Research awards and recognizes a leader who has contributed significantly to experiential learning for students, to building capacity of the public health workforce, and to fostering meaningful, sustainable community-academic partnerships.

“Public Health Practice is what we do as a community to ensure health for everyone; and ultimately it is the reason why we are all at Michigan Public Health, as students, staff, researchers, and educators.”

Thomas earned her Master of Public Health in Health Behavior and Health Education from Michigan Public Health in 2005. That same year, the Office of Public Health Practice was established, and she joined the school in a staff capacity as the associate community-academic liaison. Thomas has spent most of her 17 years at the school in different roles within the Practice Office, most recently serving as Director of Public Health Practice from 2016-2021. While she is no longer housed within the Practice Office, her work continues to focus on engaging students and the school as a whole in public health practice.

Across her roles, Thomas has been central to establishing, maintaining, and growing key Michigan Public Health co-curricular programs; mentored hundreds of students; and built the capacity of Michigan’s health departments, community-based organizations, and health systems.

She has defined what public health practice means for many in the UMSPH community through her work in building opportunities for experiential learning. In 2005, Thomas and her colleagues created the Public Health Action Support Team (PHAST) to engage graduate students in public health projects with health and non-profit organizations. She led the expansion of PHAST for 16 years, as it grew to include local deployments across Michigan with multiple practice organizations; national deployments in Texas, Mississippi, and Puerto Rico; and international deployments in the Dominican Republic, China, and Grenada.

Most important, Thomas maintained the program's momentum—administratively, for practice partners, and for students—across multiple faculty leadership transitions, a period of organizational restructuring, and with varying levels of funding and staff support.

Under her leadership and management, PHAST students have supported communities in emergency response activities such as Community Assessments for Public Health Emergency Response, as well as in ongoing public health activities like community health assessments, health education, and policy development.

Thomas built PHAST’s reputation such that its services were requested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2017 and 2019 to work with the CDC and US Virgin Islands Health Department to conduct first a CASPER and then a post-hurricane analysis, respectively, in communities affected by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Contributing to scholarly work, Dana developed several of the more intensive deployments into Public Health in Action courses offered for academic credit and has co-authored a number of publications about PHAST as a model of academic-practice capacity building. One of the supporting documents included in this packet is a manuscript showing how PHAST program activities advance students’ abilities in epidemiology competencies.

The FPHLP is another opportunity for experiential learning that Thomas continues to lead at Michigan Public Health. FPHLP is a CDC-funded workforce pipeline program meant to engage underrepresented minority undergraduate students in public health studies and careers. As part of this program, she and her team coordinate field placements and mentorship opportunities for participating students who come from around the country.

“Aside from these structured ways in which Dana has made students excited about public health practice, she goes above and beyond to support students informally,” said Phoebe Kulik, director of Workforce Development for the Region V Public Health Training Center at Michigan Public Health. “When I was located in the Practice Office suite, I witnessed a regular flow of students over the years who would come to Dana for advice, mentorship, or just a safe space to study and feel welcomed. Many of these students stay in touch with Dana after they graduate and engage with the Practice Office as alumni.”

Mislael A. Valentin-Cortes, a doctoral student in the Department of Epidemiology, first met Thomas in 2015.

“At the time, I was an undergraduate student at the University of Puerto Rico with little-to-no exposure to public health and scarce opportunities for practice,” Valentin-Cortes said. “This program, whose ultimate purpose is to provide opportunities to engage in public health practice for students from underrepresented backgrounds, was a critical component in my decision to pursue public health research and practice.”