Amy Flick poses for a photo inside the Cathedral of Learning.
Amy Flick poses for a photo inside the Cathedral of Learning.
Liam Sullivan | Staff Photographer

Amy Flick: An advocate who makes sure her students ‘retain their dignity’

Amy Flick is a professor in Pitt’s English department and is the adviser for the public communication of science and technology certificate. Her research is in rhetoric in public health systems, and she specifically focuses on harm reduction tactics and patient narratives. 

According to Stella Ross, a junior microbiology major and a mentee of Flick, the reason students connect with Flick is because of her commitment to her profession and her compassion for others.

“She’s willing to go to a place that other people don’t really go to,” Ross said. “I mean, what she did her thesis on in grad school is a prime example of that. It was about harm reduction, and no one talks about that.”

Flick’s journey to Pitt started while she was attending graduate school at Kent State.

“I got hired at Pitt while I was finishing up my Ph.D. at Kent State University in the literacy, rhetoric and social practice program,” Flick said. “But I had actually done most of my dissertation research here in the city. I worked with the syringe exchange program, and that is kind of the focus of my research — public health.” 

According to Flick, the war on drugs and much of the anti-drug messaging of the past 50 years is at best, ineffective, and at worst, harmful. 

“When I was a kid, it was the D.A.R.E. programs, and it was a lot of scare tactics and a lot of exaggeration, and those aren’t effective,” Flick said. “Because people say, ‘That’s not true,’ and the whole message is lost. But mostly, it’s not what a 15-year-old wants to interact with.”

Flick first started working in the education system in 2010 in a rural school in Ohio that was hit hard by the opioid and methamphetamine epidemic. The school knew Flick made an impact on students’ lives. After her first year, the school asked her to work as the student success coordinator because she made great connections with the children she worked with.

“It really became apparent that even though we have a ton of resources, people really don’t understand those resources or how to access them,” Flick said. “Or they don’t know how to navigate the legal system, or they don’t understand how they can be advocates for their own health. That pushed me into research about health and how the health sciences are discussed in public.”

According to Flick, effective communication is crucial in reporting about the health sciences because the audience’s level of understanding impacts the choices they make about their own health. 

“Every other year, eggs are the best thing that you can have, or eggs are the worst thing that you can ever eat,” Flick said. “And the reality is no scientist has ever said either one of those things —it’s just an exaggeration of studies. The reality is eggs are a great source of protein, but also high in fat. But these articles lack nuance, and because the media is trying to get eyeballs, it hurts people.”

For Flick, it’s more than just getting the message across in a way that the audience understands. People also need to engage the audience — information only goes as far as the audience allows it. 

“Public communication is a push-pull with you and an audience,” Flick said. “You have your agenda, but they have theirs, and you have to find a way to accommodate both. How do I reach them? How do I make myself interesting?”

Flick believes the use of social media for communication is changing within fields, and also for audiences outside of their field. A growing number of discussions are happening in online spaces. According to Flick, science communication doesn’t only happen at seminars and lecture series anymore — it happens on Twitter, TikTok and other social media platforms.

“Once people see how health and science communities are using social media, it clicks that, ‘Oh, this isn’t something extra, this is what we do now,’” Flick said. “This is how we communicate with people.”

Reilly Timko, a senior rehabilitation science major, took Flick’s Written Professional Communications class and was inspired by Flick’s work and generosity. Timko states that Flick displays vulnerability with her students and commands mutual respect. 

“People hear the word ‘science’ and don’t expect vulnerability and empathy to be involved,” Timko said. “I think that Dr. Flick does a really good job of bringing vulnerability into science.”

Flick doesn’t only work with scientists communicating their abstract ideas. She also works with patients communicating their health needs and maintaining agency, focusing on health narratives. Narrative-based health care uses stories to explore health and address bias in health care.

“I love health narratives,” Flick said. “I love hearing people talk about their own experiences with health and science. I think that it gives us a lot of room to grow. It’s really founded on the idea that a patient’s stories fundamentally change how they relate with a practitioner, and it changes the way that practitioner can treat the patient. You’re not just treating a checklist of symptoms — you’re treating a whole person.”

Jeff Aziz, a professor in the English department and a fellow adviser, believes that genuineness and a positive attitude are what make Flick special.

“There’s something very organic about Amy’s relationship to her to her work — she’s a person who is honest in every interaction,” Aziz said. “She doesn’t have to convince anybody that she’s for real, she’s for real from the time she gets up in the morning.”

Flick takes a lot of the lessons she learns in her research and the values she teaches and tries to input those into the classroom model. Ross said Flick has a special ability to motivate her students. 

“She motivates you to do something that challenges you,” Ross said. “Dr. Flick really understands that life and your well-being comes before your responsibility as a student which I think shows the concern she has for her students and the value she places on their lives.”

Flick prioritizes inclusivity with her students and emphasizes her compassion for them. She does this by having an open revision policy, but also by letting students choose the topic of all of their projects.

“I always tell my students at the beginning of the semester that I see myself as more of a mentor to them,” Flick said. “I have an open revision policy, so they can do an assignment, and they can get feedback, redo the assignment as many times as they want. I’m not looking to tell you what, ‘Here’s what you got, and now you’re done,’ I want you to actually meet your goals.”

Nidhi Girish, a sophomore neuroscience major who took Flick’s Writing in the Health Sciences Professions class, said Flick is one of the most encouraging professors she’s ever had. 

“The first thing that we wrote was our health narrative, explaining our experience with health care,” Girish said. “And she gave us all A’s on that because she was like, ‘I’m not going to be someone who gets to judge whether or not your health care experience was valid or not.’” 

Another thing Flick does to connect with her students is letting them maintain their agency in the classroom and in meetings with her. She only expects students to share if they are willing.

“I want my students to feel like they retain their sense of agency in my space,” Flick said. “They retain their dignity, and they don’t feel like they’re pressured to give things that they don’t want to give.”

Flick said her motivation boils down to a genuine love for people and a hope to make the world a better place. 

“I do this stuff with drug use, and I’ve had so many people ask, ‘Did you have drug issues? Is that why you care about this?’” Flick said. “And never, never in my whole life, but I come from a place of like, I just, I love people, and I want good things for people.”