It’s been an eventful few years for Dawn Opel. In the summer of 2016, she moved from Arizona to accept a faculty position in the WRAC Department, and that fall she began teaching both Professional Writing and Experience Architecture courses. Then, in January of 2017, she began a faculty fellowship at the Sparrow Health System / MSU Center for Innovation and Research. Despite the whirlwind start, she is very happy to have landed at Michigan State, where she can combine her interests in public policy, technology, and community engagement – through improving communication within healthcare and legal systems. “It was the only place I interviewed that had a spirit of collaboration across disciplines and inside and outside of the academy,” she says.
Originally from North Carolina, Dr. Opel became interested in law while on the debate team as an undergraduate at Wake Forest University. After completing law school at the University North Carolina in Chapel Hill, she worked as a clerk for a federal judge, and as a lawyer, where she handled cases ranging from juvenile public defense to child custody to domestic violence. After her son was born, she became interested in research and teaching and decided to pursue a PhD.
She moved to Arizona to attend Arizona State University, where she completed her PhD in Rhetoric, Composition, and Linguistics and worked as a postdoctoral researcher. It was in a digital humanities lab that she found she was interested in merging interests in technical communication, emerging technologies, and health care. While in the lab, she worked on a large, grant-funded web development project to train healthcare providers to engage in service delivery reform under the Affordable Care Act. Ultimately, she decided to come to Michigan State because it gave her an opportunity to continue her work with healthcare providers through the College of Human Medicine and Sparrow Hospital. She splits her time between Michigan State and Sparrow Hospital, where she researches ways to improve clinical communication practices and patient experiences.
Beyond her research and teaching duties, she works with Elder Law of Michigan, a nonprofit organization that works to protect the rights of older adults and people with disabilities. In particular, she focuses on ways that healthcare providers coordinate care for these populations and how care coordination can be improved to improve health outcomes. “We typically think about what drug you get or what advice you get and not really on how professionals and communities can work together to make that happen,” says Dr. Opel. Her hope is to improve communication in health and legal clinics to improve access and quality of services.
At MSU, she has taught XA 333 User Research, WRA 331 Writing for the Public Interest, and this semester she is teaching a special topics on “Medical Rhetoric and Science Writing.” She also has some great ideas for future electives offered within WRAC, including courses that connect technologies to community engagement and advocacy. “This department is a great place to bridge interests in PW, technology, and activism,” says Dr. Opel. “That’s why this is where I am supposed to be.”
Written by Suzanna Smentowski
Photo provided by Dawn Opel