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Public Health and Public Service: YSPH Alumna Krysten Thomas Is Getting It Done

June 17, 2021
by Colin Poitras

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, Krysten Thomas was working for Chief Judge Anna Blackburne-Rigsby at the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. She was also taking a full load of evening classes at the Georgetown University Law Center and teaching street law at the District of Columbia Jail.

Having graduated from the Yale School of Public Health two years before, she was well on her way to fulfilling her goal of practicing health care law and focused on building the legal skills she would need to do so. But as the pandemic worsened, Thomas, M.P.H. ’18, knew she could not sit idly by.

Despite her busy schedule, Thomas took on two new jobs to put her public health knowledge to use. To this day, she conducts COVID-19 research for the Georgetown Center for Global Health Science and Security, and she conducts COVID-19 and HIV/AIDS research for the Georgetown O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law.

“I got into those roles because I wanted to help,” she said. “The Yale School of Public Health gave me this incredible toolbox of public health skills and I was like, ‘How can I not do something?’ I just had to pitch in.”

One would have thought, at this point, that there was little room for Thomas to take on anything new. But her life was about to get a whole lot busier.

Frustrated by the government’s fumbled response to the pandemic, Thomas decided to run as a Democratic National Convention Delegate for the District of Columbia.

“The fact that [the government] handled the pandemic horribly was apparent to everybody, but it was especially apparent to someone like me who had practiced in public health,” said Thomas. “We needed new leadership and I wanted to be a part of making that happen.”

A fifth-generation native of Washington, D.C., Thomas got the second-highest vote total of all women in her district and was elected to represent residents in wards 3,4,5 and 7.

Moreover, while COVID-19 was wreaking havoc in the spring and summer of 2020, people were pouring into the streets to protest racial injustice, health inequities and police brutality. This also compelled Thomas to act.

Six years prior, she had been working in the office of Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill when 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr. was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Thomas remembers having a range of emotions watching the protests on national television and being unable to participate. Thomas was in a difficult position. As a staff member of a U.S. senator representing the constituents of the state in which the incident happened, Thomas felt it was her responsibility to remain neutral. At the time, she was working on health and judiciary issues, which included those related to civil rights and criminal justice.

When events flared in the U.S. last summer, Thomas knew she was going to participate. She grew up attending rallies and protests with her father, an attorney and an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Washington D.C., and she knew the importance of people gathering together in order to be heard.

Initially, Thomas simply showed up and participated in the different protest events. But she was soon inspired to do more, and she and a friend started bringing snacks, drinks, hand sanitizer, masks and gloves to those demonstrating. The objective was to help everyone be safe while they were being civically involved.

Once that operation was running smoothly, she looked for another purpose and started registering people to vote — first with her dad at protests, and later with friends and family at protests and in various parts of the D.C. Metropolitan Area community. She was asked to lead local voter registration drives, too, and many joined in to support and assist. Around that same time, Thomas heard that formerly incarcerated people in Florida were being prevented from voting unless they paid outstanding fines and fees, and she started raising money to help them.

Whenever I see an opportunity to help, I’m going to help to the best of my ability.

Krysten Thomas, M.P.H. '18

“Whenever I see an opportunity to help, I’m going to help to the best of my ability,” Thomas said. “I’m going to use my time and use my resources to get it done.”

Sometimes, getting it done means registering individuals to vote. Other times, it means working to pass and uphold laws that improve the lives of millions. It was the latter that compelled Thomas, a Georgetown juris doctorate candidate, to pursue a career at the intersection of law and public health.

“I am trying to merge health care and the law because I feel like I can be most effective that way,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of public health jobs and seen that some of the most successful initiatives have involved public health law.”

Thomas said Associate Professor (Adjunct) of Law Alice Miller, J.D., co-director of Yale’s Global Health Justice Partnership, had an influence on her career. She also praised Assistant Professor of Clinical Public Health (Health Policy) Shelley Geballe, J.D. ’76, M.P.H. ’95, for being a role model when it comes to social justice advocacy. Both advised Thomas on her master’s thesis, which was about contraception and the Affordable Care Act.

“They are both magnificent examples of people who understand public health problems and are able to communicate them flawlessly to parties that otherwise may not be able to understand,” Thomas said.

Miller and Geballe share fond memories of Thomas.

"As a YSPH student, Krysten was a careful and meticulous puzzle-thru-ALL-the-pieces -thinker; super-organized activist; and an incredibly committed professional," Miller said.

Said Geballe, "Krysten leaves no stone unturned on the path to a more just, kind, and healthy world. It was a great pleasure being a small part of her journey."

Given Thomas’ expansive background in public health and government service, as well as her future law degree, one might wonder if she has aspirations for political office. When asked, she deferred.

“My goal right now is to literally help as many people as I can to make the greatest impact I can,” Thomas said. “With every step, I’m trying to figure out what that is … I’m currently looking at a wide range of opportunities because I really don’t know what is going to be needed. Things are changing so fast, particularly in public health, that I am literally just trying to be ready.”

At this juncture, it goes without saying that whatever Thomas decides to do, she will likely find a way to get it done.

Submitted by Colin Poitras on June 15, 2021