American Society For Nutrition

Interview with Dr. Mary Ann Johnson, PIC Chair

Interview with Dr. Mary Ann Johnson, PIC Chair

Excellence in Nutrition Research and Practice
A Conversation with Public Information Committee Chair Dr. Mary Ann Johnson & ASN Media Award Recipient Mary MacVean

ASN's Scientific Sessions & Annual Meeting at Experimental Biology 2014 is now just days away in San Diego. Attendees from across the country and around the world are preparing to join the world's premiere conference for nutrition experts. One of those experts, Public Information Committee (PIC) Chair Dr. Mary Ann Johnson recently took time out of her own preparations to speak with ASN. Dr. Johnson is the Bill and June Flatt Professor in Foods and Nutrition and Faculty of Gerontology at the University of Georgia. There she also serves as Graduate Coordinator in Foods and Nutrition and as an Adjunct Professor in Kinesiology. In this interview, Dr. Johnson tells us what to expect from the PIC symposium Sustainable Diets for Healthy People, Healthy Planet, which is scheduled for Wednesday, April 30 from 10:30 AM to 12:30 PM.  Presenters at the symposium, supported by the Dairy Research Institute, include Greg Thoma, University of Arkansas; David Klurfeld, USDA ARS; Adam Drewnowski, University of Washington; and Robert Burns of the Grocery Manufacturers Association. Chairs for the symposium are past PIC Chair Jeannie Gazzaniga-Moloo (California State University, Sacramento) and Nancy Auestad (Dairy Research Institute). Dr. Johnson also discusses the annual media award, and we hear from the recipient, Mary MacVean, Los Angeles Times

Interviewer: What programming at EB are you most looking forward to?

Dr. Johnson: I enjoy the Council and Committee functions, as this is usually the one time a year we meet face-to-face.  It gives us a unique opportunity to reflect on what is working well at this year's meeting and finalize plans for next year's meeting.

Interviewer: Are there any symposia that are of particular interest to you?

Dr. Johnson: The program is excellent this year, as always. My interests are primarily in nutrition and chronic disease, especially how nutrition science is translated into practical advice.  For me, the “must- see” symposia are: Unscientific Beliefs about Scientific Topics in Nutrition, Energy Drinks: Current Knowledge and Critical Research Gaps, Food and Nutrition Board Update – Nutrition and Population Health: Are Changes on the Horizon? and the USDA-REE Listening Session. I also strongly encourage attendees to spend time browsing the program beforehand, and to take advantage of the itinerary builder to make sure you don't miss any sessions you really want to see.

Interviewer: What is your role on the EB program subcommittee?

Dr. Johnson: The members of the EB program subcommittee review the symposia that have been submitted by our members and we recommend those with the best science and the newest science as well as those that will address future concerns. The goal is to create a well-rounded program that appeals to our members' diverse interests. That said, we are only one step in the process for putting together the program.  Most of the proposals we receive have been endorsed by one of ASN's Research Interest Sections or by one of the three councils: Medical Nutrition Council, Global Nutrition Council, or Nutritional Sciences Council.  These endorsements are important to have because it shows us the participants are already working with and getting feedback from other scientists in our society.  

Interviewer: Do you have any advice for first-time EB attendees?

Dr. Johnson: For the first-time attendee, I would start by saying that it can be very challenging narrowing down the number of sessions you can go to, but do your best to prioritize.  Make sure you also make time to go to a Research Interest Section (RIS) meeting.  They vary in format, with some that are more formal and some that are more interactive, however in some fashion they all include time to get to know new members, so I think that is one of the best things a first-time attendee can do.

Interviewer: Looking ahead to 2015, can you identify any of the hot topics in nutrition coming down the line?

Dr. Johnson: We have already begun looking at proposals for next year's meeting.  Based on what we are seeing so far, it appears that obesity (unsurprisingly) will continue to be a very important subject of discussion, at the basic science, clinical, translational levels, and in community settings.  We are also going to continue to need the evidence base for a balanced diet.  Other issues we need to be thinking about are those that consumers are most interested in: sustainability, whole foods, and novel food ingredients that may have specific health benefits.

Interviewer: What does your role as PIC Chair entail? What other activities does PIC oversee?

Dr. Johnson: As PIC chair, I work with our committee to develop new ways to communicate with both members and the public. Together, we work to spread our messages across both “old-school” and “new-school” social media channels in order to reach our diverse audience of students, postdocs, university faculty, scientists and reporters.

Our symposium is entitled Sustainable Diets for Healthy People, Healthy Planet. We are very excited because this session responds to the urgent societal need to produce, manufacture, consume, and dispose of our food waste in sustainable ways.  To do so, we will be discussing everything from the role of agricultural production to grocery packaging and renewable energy. The other thing that makes this symposium unique is that it brings together groups of people who do not often have a chance to talk to each other about sustainability.

Another annual activity that PIC undertakes is nominating a journalist for ASN's Nutrition Science Media Award, which will be presented at the award ceremony on April 27. We solicit nominations from the membership and then evaluate each applicant. This year's winner is Mary MacVean, MS, from The Los Angeles Times, who has written extensively on gluten, farmers markets, prison gardens and dieting mythology.

Interview: Mary, as a reporter, you have a unique view of nutrition. What would you say is the most controversial issue in nutrition today?

MacVean: The hottest issue at the moment is sugar – in all its forms. From how it behaves in the body, to its hold on our cravings, to legislative debates over whether sugar-sweetened beverages should be taxed. I probably can't write enough about sugar, no matter how many stories I do. It's a high-stakes issue for the corporations that produce our food and beverages, too, of course. Aside from that, as people unendingly search for a silver bullet to their health and appearance, we'll hear much more about gluten, ancient grains and superfoods, and juicing. I thought that would be a short-lived notion, but every week I see new juicing shops open all over Los Angeles.

I am thrilled to be honored by the American Society for Nutrition. I have been a passionate food writer for a long time, since before the first round of nutrition facts panels on products. And I'm so happy to have my work recognized. The work of nutrition researchers plays such a strong role in the quality of people's everyday lives, and ASN's publications help so much in getting crucial information to us all.

April 2014