Tenacious curiosity guides researcher’s study of health and science communication

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pennsylvania – A report on the health of dogs who swam in a polluted lake that took months to produce or a report on a cooking event where local chefs used every part of a pig – what a story had most views?

The answer: the culinary event. And it wasn’t close.

These stories aired in 2009. The reporter was Jessica Gall Myrick, a multimedia reporter for Indiana Public Media in Bloomington, Indiana. She was baffled and a little annoyed that the lake story, which she was working hard on, had barely moved the needle.

She became increasingly curious about how her audience interpreted and reacted to her stories — especially stories about health and science. She enrolled in graduate courses in journalism and her career path veered toward an academic life.

“I learned that the way topics are communicated motivates people in different ways, which is very important on a societal level,” she said. “Plus, I got tired of lugging around a camera. Those things weighed a ton.

Today, Myrick is a professor of media studies at the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications and has made a name for herself as a leading scholar in her field with a knack for timely studies that often go viral.

“My journalism training taught me that ‘new’ is news value,” she said. “I’m really interested in the type of popular media that a lot of people are consuming that has a big impact on them. If it’s happening now, that’s what motivates me.

Early in his college career, Myrick published research on how watching cat videos online can help improve mood and boost energy. This laid the foundation for the study of social media, memes, public figures, and messages that affect human emotions, health, and people’s understanding of science.

Some of Myrick’s recent articles have examined how Tom Hanks’ diagnosis of COVID-19 has influenced public understanding of the virus, how former President Donald Trump’s diet has affected people’s food choices, and how controversial celebrity illnesses have influenced public health.

Among his colleagues, Myrick has earned a reputation for having a friendly and energetic work ethic. She has received numerous awards, including the Lewis Donohew Outstanding Health Communication Scholar Award 2022. Last year, she was named Full Professor. She continues to publish widely, teaches, and sits on M.A. and Ph.D. student committees.

“Jess came to Penn State as an extremely productive scholar and the rest. She did, however, expand her range,” said Matt Jordan, associate professor and head of the film production and media studies department at Bellisario College. “She is able to think through a wide variety of theoretical and methodological issues, which is why she has such a reach and has written on so many different issues.”

Leave a Comment