A History of Communication: Insights from IFIC Foundation’s Sylvia Rowe Fellows

Nutrition and health are at the forefront of public interest, and the need for health professionals and nutrition communicators to be sources of accurate, timely commentary is intensifying. It is important that nutrition authorities have a strong voice in the expansive discussion of food’s impact on health. New research and nutrition-related clinical guidelines should be communicated to the public in an unbiased and understandable format.

The Sylvia Rowe Fellowship Award was established as a tribute to former International Food Information Council (IFIC) and IFIC Foundation President & CEO Sylvia B. Rowe to help promising nutrition and food safety communicators enhance their capabilities. The goal of this award is to develop the recipient's communication skills that he or she can and will apply to communicating nutrition and food safety information to the public in an academic, professional (either for-profit or nonprofit sector), or other public settings. The recipient is awarded an eight- to 12-week internship at the IFIC Foundation offices in Washington, D.C. 

Sylvia Rowe Fellows have come from a wide range of backgrounds and areas of expertise, but the thread connecting them is their passion for communication at the intersection of nutrition science, communications and policy. In this article, several past fellows contributed insights on their IFIC Foundation experience and how it changed their personal and professional development.

How did you hear about IFIC Foundation’s Sylvia Rowe Fellowship, and what prompted you to apply?

Elizabeth L. Petrun Sayers, PhD, 2012 Fellow and current Associate Behavioral and Social Scientist: As a graduate student at the University of Kentucky, I worked on research for the National Center for Food Protection and Defense (NCFPD). NCFPD is a U.S. Department of Homeland Security National Center of Excellence. Working in the center’s risk communication research theme, I was quickly introduced to IFIC. I saw a lot of potential for future collaboration with IFIC and their talented staff, and was quick to apply once I discovered the fellowship.

Kate Olender, MS, MPH, 2014 Fellow and current Account Supervisor, Food & Nutrition, at Edelman: A colleague of mine from FMI [Food Marketing Institute] (where I had spent the previous summer) forwarded me the information with a note that said, “Any interest in coming back to DC again?” I already had a job and classes lined up in Boston, as I was still in school, but it looked like such a great opportunity. It was also recommended by someone I greatly admire, so I decided to throw my hat in the ring.

Christa Drew, MPPA, 2010 Fellow and current Executive Director for Nonviolent Solutions and Lead Consultant & Evaluator for DAISA Enterprises, LLC: The Food Science Alliance, comprised of international food and beverage company representatives, granted me a full fellowship to earn my master's in Public Policy with a specialization in Food Science Policy at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The founder and director of the Alliance, Dr. Fergus Clydesdale, is a colleague and friend of Sylvia Rowe, and Sylvia was an active member of the Alliance. I believe I may have heard about the fellowship from one or both of them. I applied because the fellowship was an excellent complement to my studies and professional exploration.

Stephanie Masiello, PhD, 2013 Fellow and current Epidemiologist with the City of Chicago Department of Public Health: Honestly, I just did a Google search for science communication internships. Effectively communicating science-based information was something that I had always been passionate about.   I was thrilled to find an opportunity to explore that passion through the IFIC Foundation’s Sylvia Rowe Fellowship.

Cheryl Molinatto, MPH, 2011 Fellow and current stay-at-home mom and founding Board Member of the College Park Community Foundation: IFIC generously hosted and participated in the National Nutrition Issues course in Washington, D.C. during my MPH program with UNC-Chapel Hill. I was interested in food and nutrition communication and policy and IFIC Foundation’s Sylvia Rowe Fellowship offered a unique opportunity for me to pursue these interests.

Allison Dostal, PhD, RD, 2015 Fellow and current Research Associate at the University of Minnesota Medical Center: The fellowship announcement was circulated through my graduate program’s list serve, and I decided to throw my hat in the ring, despite thinking that I probably didn’t have a chance, given its nationwide disbursement. At that time, I was finishing my graduate degree and was deciding what direction I wanted my career to go. The fellowship seemed like a great way for me to get more writing experience and to tap into my interest in nutrition communications.

What projects were you involved in during your time with the IFIC Foundation?

ELPS: I was able to contribute to IFIC Foundation’s Food and Health Survey, several projects on food labeling and perceptions of chemicals in food, and some internal work for their media channels.

KO: I did a lot of writing for diverse audiences, including drawing out key points from IFIC and IFIC Foundation consumer research and sharing it. I also helped to develop a plan for multi-stakeholder, cross-sector engagement around an idea for encouraging healthy choices among Millennials.

CD: I conducted research, facilitated meetings, and drafted a strategic plan for the development of the International Center of Excellence in Food Risk Communication on food and nutrition issues. Building upon ideas from the IFIC staff, I helped to create a values-based organizational culture by drafting correlated behaviors and posters for the office. I also researched and wrote blog posts about a variety of food/nutrition-related topics for consumers that were posted on their website.

SM: I was a bit all over the place. I created pamphlets about antibiotic usage and farm animals, looked into how different cultural groups used the Nutrition Facts Panel, and wrote weekly blog posts centered on dairy, food science, and data interpretation. My main project was creating an in-house guide that explained common scientific terminology and how best to dissect and understand a scientific study.

CM: I was involved with a myriad of projects covering food ingredients, chemicals in food, risk communication, dietary fats, protein, and food production.

AD: I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work on a wide range of projects during my time, which was an ideal situation for me – I do best when I have a lot to think about at one time! I was involved in communications related to the B-24 Project, whose aim is to assist in the development of Dietary Guidelines for children under age 2 for the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. I wrote several content pieces for their website, the FACTS Network, and a variety of external partner sites. I worked on several education initiatives, as well as being involved in preparations for the unveiling of IFIC Foundation’s Food Safety Communicator’s Guide to the China Food & Drug Administration. Through being involved in a diverse set of projects, I was able to flex my academic muscle while also learning so many new communication skills.

Do you have a particular highlight (or highlights) from your fellowship? What made this experience (or experiences) stand out to you?

ELPS:  I’m happy that I was able to publish an article in Food Protection Trends based on research conducted during my time as a Fellow. I also enjoyed presenting at the 2012 IFIC Science Communications Summit, and later on at JIFSAN’s [Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition] 2013 Annual Spring Symposium.

KO: I enjoyed all aspects of my fellowship experience at IFIC, but what I enjoyed most was the thoughtful, genuinely respectful conversations I had with my colleagues there. We all brought different experiences, opinions, and knowledge to the table, and I learned so much and broadened my thinking by discussing issues with my coworkers. I really enjoyed that. I grew a lot as a person and as a professional because of those conversations.

CD: During my time at IFIC I appreciated the opportunity to attend a variety of meetings where I was welcome to contribute a different perspective to the organization's work based on my own experiences working with low-income populations and on issues of hunger. I especially remember the IFIC Foundation Executive Director being supportive and bringing me to some really high-level meetings. Attending these meetings provided a rare insight into how the CEOs/Exec Directors of all the leading for-profit organizations, associations, and nonprofits in the food/beverage industry meet, interact, and collaborate. It was illuminating to see that intersection.

SM: I think that a highlight was getting to know and collaborate with an amazing group of people who were excited about their jobs. A standout experience was towards the end of my internship, when I presented my final project of the science guide to the entire office!

CM: Through my involvement with stakeholder meetings and forums hosted by IFIC, I learned a great deal about how the food industry communicates its messages to the public. A highlight of my time with IFIC was attending the National Food Policy Conference, where we examined the key food policy issues affecting consumers, the food industry and government.

AD: My highlights include attending several forums and conferences focused around nutrition, communication strategies, and global health. I also echo Kate’s sentiments with regard to the strong working relationships I built with my colleagues. Coming out of an intensive graduate school experience, it was refreshing to be around such a diverse, experienced group of individuals.

How are you using the skills you developed and/or refined during the fellowship in your current position?

ELPS: Working as a Sylvia Rowe Fellow gave me more experience working on applied research. I pursued a PhD in risk and science communication because I enjoy getting to the root of a problem using scientific methods. Yet one of the most important parts of the research process for me is also communicating my findings back out to people that can benefit from them. I am still working on applied research for a think tank here in [Washington, D.C.].

KO: IFIC helped me better choose language, tone, and communication style for different audiences, and to understand some of the nuances of those choices. I am more thoughtful now in my communications. Also, through my research for developing a plan for a multi-stakeholder engagement project, I learned from a lot of experts about how to more effectively facilitate collaboration among different groups of people and how to help find and build upon commonalities to meet a goal.

CD: I already had many years of professional experience before my time with IFIC, so my tasks did not seem to develop new skills except for writing blog articles for consumers, which was new to me. As an Executive Director and a program evaluator, I am now quite focused on marketing and/or storytelling and communications, which need similar sensitivities and skills.

SM: The skills that I developed and refined at IFIC come into play all the time in my position. As someone with training in both technical laboratory skills and data analysis, the ability to effectively communicate science to people of different backgrounds is priceless. 

CM: While at IFIC, I gained more experience listening to a variety of viewpoints and tailoring my communication efforts to the audience. This experience has translated well in helping me communicate effectively with many stakeholders as a board member with the College Park Community Foundation, where I engage with non-profit organizations, businesses, community leaders and the public.

AD: Being a Sylvia Rowe Fellow solidified how important it is to consider the audience that I’m trying to reach, whether I’m writing, speaking in public, or just engaging in conversation. I have a stronger appreciation for the importance of staying up to date on current affairs within the intersecting spheres of nutrition and health, which is all the more challenging given the amount of information that’s thrown at all of us, every day. I’ve also developed a deeper awareness of the many perspectives, biases and misconceptions within the nutrition field. While there will always be differing viewpoints and some voices that speak louder than others, considering the totality of the evidence/information on a given topic (and being aware of my own biases!) is the most important thing.

What advice do you have for future Sylvia Rowe Fellows?

ELPS: Come into your fellowship with a plan! The fellowship will go by faster than you think and you don’t want to waste any time. Also, try to get out into the community and meet as many people as you can. IFIC has a great network of colleagues, and it’s helpful to get to know others in the food community.

KO: Talk to everyone. Have coffees, lunches, and hallway conversations. There’s a wealth of knowledge and experience among your colleagues at IFIC, so take advantage of it. And don’t be afraid to express what you want to learn more about or a skill you want to strengthen. IFIC is great about identifying and offering opportunities to help you meet your goals.

CD: As with any opportunity in life, I would encourage full engagement in as much as possible. I would suggest that future Fellows express their interests and skills and strive to listen, learn, and fully contribute.

SM: Enjoy it and make it yours! The great thing about the fellowship is that you can shape your experience to be a reflection of your interests.

CM: Take care of yourself so you can engage fully every day. There is so much you can take away from your experience.

AD: Take advantage of the broad network of individuals working in food, nutrition, and communication in the D.C. area. Go to as many forums, conferences, and meetings as you can. The caliber and esteem of the professionals working in this city is absolutely incredible, and it is amazing to be a part of that community. Don’t be afraid to jump into a project that you may not have experience with but sounds interesting to you. Use the fellowship as a period of exploration of your interests and finding your niche.

What were (or are) your favorite things to do in D.C. (i.e. cultural/historical offerings, restaurants/coffee shops, neighborhoods, hiking/biking trips, etc.)? 

ELPS: I love taking advantage of everything D.C. has to offer. I’m a runner and a biker, so I’m outside almost every day. If you are here during baseball season, I would also recommend heading to Navy Yard for a Nationals game. Finally, even though I grew up in the D.C. area, I still visit the Smithsonian museums in my spare time to see my favorite exhibits. All the Smithsonian museums are wonderful, but I prefer the Natural History Museum to see my favorite combination of artifacts: diamonds and dinosaurs. 

KO: I love the monuments at night, not just during the day. It’s a different experience. I also enjoy Eastern Market and the bike trail from Georgetown to Bethesda. I also like the Library of Congress (do the tour—it’s worth it) and the National Archives. Those are my two favorite “touristy” attractions.

CD: I enjoyed Kennedy Center shows, farmers markets, all the Smithsonian museums, Botanical Gardens, and exploring and hiking any and all green spaces.

SM: There are tons of great things to do in D.C.; it’s so hard to pick one. Instead, I’ll tell you my favorite thing near the IFIC office: getting lunch at one of the food trucks lined up around Farragut Square!

CM: I love walking and biking throughout D.C. and Maryland—there’s unforgettable scenery to enjoy.

AD: I loved spending time on the National Mall, especially seeing the monuments at night. The Smithsonian museums and the Newseum are also incredible. If you’re a runner or biker, Rock Creek Park is great. Weekend mornings at Eastern Market or the Little Red Fox are time well spent. Oh, and Rose’s Luxury is definitely worth the hype, and worth every minute of standing in line! I could go on forever. You should never be bored in this city!