As a third-year student embarking on the journey of receiving my PhD, I planned on spending my summer in a lab, carrying out experiments. Instead, I was fortunate to be offered the 2016 Sylvia Rowe Fellowship. For my PhD, my work is focused around food chemistry. I also added a minor in computer science and engineering. This might be a non-traditional pairing of skills, but the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation was receptive to my proposal to use foundational programming skills to create interactive and engaging tools as a form of scientific communication. Here are a few takeaways from my experience as the 2016 Sylvia Rowe Fellow.
Takeaway #1: Communicating scientific understanding is essential.
For me, the IFIC Foundation is essential for their mission to communicate and improve scientific understanding. Almost daily, the public is told to modify their diet based on outcomes of poorly designed studies. The need for a group to both objectively evaluate and communicate new findings as they are generated is such an asset for all of us. As a researcher, I worry about others finding value in my work. But as a Sylvia Rowe fellow, I was able to learn how to address that concern and see what that process can look like from a communication perspective.
Takeaway #2: The challenges of trying something new
Creating data visualization tools can be a cool way to try out new forms of communicating about nutrition, food safety and agriculture. On the other hand, while trying something new, I met some unexpected challenges: I had to consider how people might interpret data differently in a digital visualization tool versus the more black-and-white words of a blog post.
“How might a reader interpret the choice of colors I used in this tool?”
“Am I reducing the dimensionality of data to a point where the values are next to useless?”
“Will all readers have a similar conclusion to this visual?”
These are all questions I had formed only after some of my projects were nearing completion. As time passed, I gained a better sense of intuition and learned to be more strategic and purposeful when planning and working on projects.
Takeaway #3: Could I make a career out of this?
I have always thought after graduating I would likely land a position that would leverage my research and development skills, but my time at the IFIC Foundation taught me there are opportunities I have yet to acknowledge. I absolutely loved my exposure to regulatory and policy decisions that I would have not been exposed to in a laboratory setting, and my technical background reinforced my ability to communicate those changes to our readers.
If you are looking to gain new perspectives on the food industry, flex your creative muscles and work with a team of talented and driven colleagues, apply for the Sylvia Rowe Fellowship.