American Society For Nutrition

Interview with Dr. Michael McBurney, PMC Chair

Interview with Dr. Michael McBurney, PMC Chair

Excellence in Nutrition Research and Practice
A Conversation With ASN Publications Management Committee Chair Dr. Michael McBurney

Social media has become an integral part of communication between health care professionals and their patients. It has also become a particularly important tool for those in nutrition, who are faced with the difficult task of ensuring that the public receives accurate, up-to-date information to counteract the often misleading or over-simplified reports found in mainstream media. No one knows the challenges of this task better than ASN member Dr. Michael McBurney.

Dr. McBurney serves as chair of ASN's Publications Management Committee, which is responsible for The Journal of Nutrition, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, and the organization's newest publication, Advances in Nutrition. He is also Head of Scientific Affairs for DSM Nutritional Products Inc., where he is responsible for a nutrition blog called TalkingNutrition.dsm.com, which is also tweeted via @dsmnutrition and posted on www.facebook.com/TalkingNutritionDSM. He recently discussed the influence of social media on nutrition, his work at DSM, and his time as an active and passionate ASN member.

Interviewer: How did you first get interested in pursuing a career in nutrition?

Dr. McBurney: I grew up on a farm, and throughout my childhood I learned that the nutritional needs of animals change with life stage.  Then, at university, I chose to study biology with a focus on ecology because I was interested in the interaction of species.  I was fortunate to work for two years as a technician in a department of animal science doing research.  That really got me interested in nutrition science and research.  As a graduate student, I studied animal nutrition with Dr. Peter Van Soest, who published a book called The Nutritional Ecology of the Ruminant. It introduced me to differences among species as they forage or browse for food as well as the interactions between our digestive anatomy and the extent that nutrients are extracted and absorbed.  That led to my life-long career and interest in nutrition, metabolism, and, for humans, behaviors that influence our diet.  

Interviewer: When and why did you decide to join ASN?

Dr. McBurney: I became aware of ASN as a graduate student because we wanted to present our research
at the ASN Scientific Sessions & Annual Meeting at Experimental Biology. I joined ASN because it provided better access as a member.   

Interviewer: What aspects of ASN membership have you found most helpful to your career?

Dr. McBurney: There have been many aspects of membership I have found incredibly useful to my career. The first was becoming a member of the editorial board of The Journal of Nutrition. That opportunity was really helpful to my academic career. It gave me the opportunity to attend the annual editorial meeting and get to know members of the editorial board, which is a “who's who” of nutrition science research in the world.  As a reviewer, it also gave me the opportunity to preview new, emerging research.  Second, ASN has also always been a major networking opportunity: meeting other scientists at the annual meeting and recruiting graduate students, postdocs.

Interviewer: Can you tell us a bit about DSM and your role in the field?

Dr. McBurney: DSM is a Dutch-based company which is one of the world's largest supplier of vitamins, carotenoids, omega-3 fatty acids, and other nutritional ingredients.  We are a B2B that sells ingredients primarily to other companies including food, supplement, infant formula, and pharmaceutical manufacturers who then sell finished products to consumers.  DSM is not widely known by the public because we do not focus on advertising directly to consumers.  It is a very interesting company because we get to promote nutrition without having a very specific product to sell to consumers.  As such, we care about improving the nutrition of people without being biased towards a type of food or dietary supplement.

My role in DSM is in nutrition science and communications, which means I leverage nutrition science to shape tomorrow's opportunities. Malnutrition is epidemic in many ways in all parts of the world, even in individuals who may be overweight and obese.  They may have a caloric imbalance but they are still not consuming the recommended amounts of the vitamins and minerals daily.

Coverage of nutrition research is often subject to “hot topics” that become the “rage” or the current focus, but there are many other important nutrition issues. I am responsible for the TalkingNutrition.dsm.com blog. The purpose of this blog is to provide balance and perspective on new scientific publications. One of my other responsibilities is to help guide science through DSM-sponsored activities and to increase awareness of nutritional inadequacies by helping facilitate conversations that will enable policy makers and educators to improve nutrition everywhere.    

Interviewer: What motivated you to start your blog? How has it affected your interaction with colleagues and the public?

Dr. McBurney: In my role as a nutrition science advocate, it is important to keep people abreast of the latest research. Nutrition awareness is often driven by media coverage of the latest study in isolation. Consumers should be guided by the preponderance of the evidence, not a single report. Social media offers a much more immediate and interactive avenue to offer that balanced perspective. I launched a blog to help provide content and perspective on studies published in the last 24 to 48 hours, both externally and internally within DSM.

Interviewer: How do you feel social media has affected nutrition? Are there ways that it could be better utilized?

Dr. McBurney: Social media is interesting in that the world is becoming much flatter: everyone can have an opinion and share it. Defining consensus is more complicated than it used to be, because there are so many channels to share information. While defragmentation can be helpful, it also means that all of us have to be much more careful about where we get our information. Either way, the Internet and social media are changing the face of our field and of our world.

Interviewer: What are the challenges facing the industry? What are some potential solutions?

Dr. McBurney: The changes in media provide a major challenge and an opportunity to professional societies like ASN because we are competing to be ‘the' voice of nutrition science in an increasingly diversified world.  I think that one of the ways that ASN is working towards meeting this challenge is through its production and promotion of three of the field's top research-based nutrition journals. Keeping those strong and ensuring that they remain the journals of choice for nutrition scientists to publish is critical to the long-term success of our society. I think ASN needs to continue creating forums for informed decision-making and contributing to the generation of evidence that will be used by policy makers. This is critical. As ‘THE' professional nutrition society in North America, and a force globally too, ASN plays a very important role in nutrition research, nutrition communication, and building consensus on best practices to guide policymakers.

Interviewer: Is there anything else you would like to tell ASN and its members?

Dr. McBurney: One, I would like to say “thank you,” because the society has given me far more than I have given it.  Secondly, I would say to members, existing and potential members, that ASN is a great, democratic society consisting of a terrific group of people.  I encourage them to become members and to become active in ASN.  If they do that, like me, they will receive much more than they give.

September 2011