American Society For Nutrition

Interview with 5000th Member & Sponsor

Interview with 5000th Member & Sponsor

Excellence in Nutrition Research and Practice
A Conversation with ASN's 5,000th Member and Her Sponsor: Dr. Miriam Ryan and Dr. Michael Gibney

The American Society for Nutrition (ASN) was founded in 1928 by 11 of the top minds in the nutrition field.  ASN is now pleased to continue that tradition with the introduction of our 5,000th member, Dr. Miriam Ryan.  Dr. Ryan is the scientific coordinator of the Joint Irish Nutrigenomics Organisation (JINGO) and a postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute of Food Health at University College Dublin. Along with Dr. Ryan, we spoke to her membership sponsor, Dr. Michael Gibney, a principal investigator for JINGO and the author of Something to Chew On: Challenging Controversies in Food and Health. In this interview, they discuss ASN membership, their work with JINGO, and the future of social media in nutrition.

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Interviewer: Dr. Ryan, how does it feel to be ASN's 5,000th member?

Dr. Ryan: I feel honored to be the 5,000th member of an organization with such a prestigious legacy in the field.  The society has a wonderful reputation and provides so many great opportunities.  Everyone has already been so welcoming; I'm very happy about it.

Interviewer: When did you first get interested in nutrition and what motivated you to pursue a career in the field?

Dr. Ryan: As a child, I had the worst digestive system, which led to many trips to the doctor.  When the medications they gave me didn't work, they sent me to a dietitian.  I may not have appreciated her input at the time, because she was changing the way I liked to eat, but I learned the wisdom of her ways very quickly when I began to feel better.  Even if I didn't realize it then, that experience showed me the power of the foods we eat, and I became very curious about the science behind it.

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Dr. Gibney: When I was at school in the mid-1960s, much of the economic growth at the time was driven by the agri-food sector. Even though I was born in Dublin and nowhere near a farm, food and food processing was really of interest to me. I began by studying agricultural science and eventually made the move into the nutrition field.

Interviewer: What made you decide to join ASN?

Dr. Ryan: I am joining ASN officially now, but I've been somewhat on the “outskirts” of the organization for a number of years by reading and citing ASN journals. I finally decided to become a member because nutrition is a field where you have to be very active in order to get the right information quickly.  ASN membership provides so many different avenues to keep on top of important issues.  Beyond that, membership offers great networking opportunities and the chance to build solid collaborative relationships, which is such an important part of doing research. I'm very much looking forward to becoming a part of the research interest groups because of those networking and research opportunities.

Dr. Gibney: I believe I joined after graduating from the University of Sydney's Veterinary School, around when I joined the University of Southampton Medical School.  I decided to join because ASN was (and is) one of the world's most prestigious nutrition societies with the top journals in the field. You can't really be a card-carrying nutritionist if you're not a member of a major nutrition organization like this one. Since joining, I've continued to find the journals incredibly helpful, and I've participated in a number of ASN meetings.

Interviewer: And why did you sponsor Dr. Ryan's membership?

Dr. Gibney: Miriam is among a crop of very successful postdoctoral fellows within my group, each overseeing a multi-million dollar project. Miriam is keen to explore posts abroad particularly with the US and I was thus delighted to agree to be her sponsor. Miriam, in addition to being a multi-lingual, outstanding young scientist, also has a career interest in the application of social media to nutrition. ASN membership will be vital to that end.

Interviewer: Can you tell us a bit about the Joint Irish Nutrigenomics Organisation (JINGO)?

Dr. Ryan: JINGO is a partnership between four universities--University College Dublin, University College Cork, Trinity College Dublin, and the University of Ulster at Coleraine--funded by the Irish Department of Agriculture's Food Institutional Research Measure.  For the past six years, I've been managing the National Nutritional Phenotype Database.  The program is made up of three projects that gathered nutrition data on over 7,000 Irish citizens between 2008 and 2012.  While the data collection portion of the project has ended, this database now has the potential to be a huge national resource as well as a huge global resource for nutrition researchers.

Dr. Gibney: JINGO is so important because it integrates public health nutrition with molecular nutrition.  I have felt there is a grave danger that public health nutrition might go in one direction and molecular nutrition another, instead of treating them as both sides of the same coin.  JINGO helps address these concerns because it combines very large population studies with detailed data on gene sequences, gene expression, and metabolomics.  I think the future is going to show that public health nutrition will need to develop and have access to this in-depth molecular data, and JINGO has given us a way to begin doing that.

Interviewer: How do you use social media in your work? How do you feel it has affected nutrition and are there ways we could use it more effectively?

Dr. Ryan: I've always been interested in online media, but it has really become a part of my work after we set up a website, Twitter (@UCDFoodHealth), podcasts, and a Facebook page supporting JINGO.  It has been an incredible tool to communicate with researchers and to understand what is important to them. Social media has the potential to be, and to a degree already is, an incredibly important resource for nutrition researchers. We are spending large sums of taxpayer dollars to conduct these projects, so we have a duty to tell people what's being done with their money and what the benefits are.  Social media gives us the power to transmit this information instantly to large audiences.  The technology is there, but I think that more nutritionists and healthcare professionals could be taking advantage of it.  We need to change our attitudes towards using these social media tools. ASN can (and has) led the way on this front, but it's important that individual members, clinicians and researchers, follow that lead.  Nutritionists tend to be very adaptable creatures, but I think we could certainly increase the amount of training and attention we give to social media and other communications channels within formal Masters and doctoral programs.

Dr. Gibney: I blog once a week at http://gibneyonfood.blogspot.com. Through this blog, I've had the opportunity to get to know people in the community who are writing excellent, well-thought-out posts.  Many of them are also communicating this information on Twitter.  A lot of the high-quality material is being produced by graduate students and postdocs, who are setting up an international dialogue to discuss the ins and outs of new research developments. Unfortunately, social media also attracts some bad science as well. This is where ASN and other major societies can help promote the good science and weed out some of the less rigorous work, while encouraging membership to start taking up these tools for their own purposes.

Interviewer: Dr. Gibney, your recently published book, Something to Chew On: Challenging Controversies in Food and Health sets out to explore some of the many issues that dominate media coverage of nutrition and health. What has the response to the book been like? What impact do you hope the book will have on the public?

Dr. Gibney: I wrote the book and set up my blog because I was tired of reading some of the less rigorous work produced on nutrition for popular audiences.  I have found that the public has a huge appetite for nutrition information from people they feel they can trust.  I wanted to satisfy that desire for interested, intelligent readers who wanted to find out more about genetically modified food, food additives, aging, obesity, personalized nutrition, and some of the other important issues in nutrition.  The reception for the book has been very positive.  The first printing has actually sold out and about two weeks ago there was an outstanding review on the book in the Wall Street Journal.

Interviewer: Is there anything else you would like to share with ASN or its membership?

Dr. Ryan: I look forward to participating in ASN, especially as I see all of the resources we have available to us.  I'm also looking forward to meeting more members and working with them.

Dr. Gibney: I would like to see continued cooperation between ASN and international societies, especially with ASN participating in meetings in Europe and offering young American investigators the opportunity to come to these meetings. This is something that ASN has been working on quite a lot in recent years, and I would love to see those efforts continue to develop. 

July 2013