Innovative NewTrition Talks Foster Engagement Between Students, Faculty, and Staff at Friedman

by Matthew Moore

After helping to plan and execute the successful 2015 Future of Food and Nutrition Student Research Conference, second-year students Kurtis Morrish (FPAN) and Kenny Westerman (BMN) were inspired to do more. By the end of the conference they had developed the concept for a new lecture series at Friedman; one that is informal, engaging, and not necessarily based on formal research. Less than six months later, NewTrition was born.

“We both really enjoyed the engagement, inspiration, and even controversy that arose from the [SRC] talks but were somewhat frustrated by the fact that academic talks can get buried in NewTrition Logo
minutiae and become less accessible to the average listener. At Friedman, we all have a passion related to food in some way, and that is what we hope to showcase through NewTrition,” Morrish and Westerman explained in an email.

NewTrition is not just another lecture or seminar series. Presentations are structured in a format similar to TED Talks: 10 minutes or less, and speakers are encouraged to use slides for reference
or visual aid, but not to portray dense bodies of text or complex data figures. While the weekly Friedman seminars may present the full lifecycle of a formal research project, NewTrition presentations are intended to stimulate conversation by briefly introducing and summarizing topics with open-ended potential. So far there have been two events (September 29 and October 27), and a third is currently in the works.

Morrish and Westerman made it clear that they do not want to restrict the range of topics, and they explained they are happy for people to present “anything that will leave [attendees] wanting to learn more after the talk.” They view NewTrition not just as a conversation starter, but also as an opportunity for students to develop communications and public speaking skills and have a chance to present when they otherwise would not.

Westerman kicked off the inaugural event with a discussion of how diets can be constructed based on common molecular compounds to target particular gene sets and their related outcome: anything from preventing jet lag to extending the length of human life. Morrish examined the benefits and challenges of personalized nutrition advice based on lifestyle, medical history, food preferences, and other factors that go beyond genetics.

In October, second-year FPAN student Kristine Caiafa presented innovations in food aid, such as including probiotics in formulations and using drones to deliver aid packages. She compared the talk to having a conversation with friends in contrast to a formal lecture.

“I am so interested in hearing about what my fellow students are passionate about. The talks at NewTrition introduce me to new ideas that stretch my imagination and invite me to think about food and nutrition in different ways. They make me question how things are being done to consider what could be possible. Talks don’t have to be fancy—we’re all just there to be engaged professionals,” she said.

Presentations are not limited to students; staff and faculty are encouraged to speak, as well. There’s just one caveat: Morrish and Westerman make it a point to have faculty speakers avoid topics related to their own regular research or what they already teach in class, as reflected in Associate Professor Parke Wilde’s session at the October NewTrition event.

Wilde discussed a Change.org petition calling on the greater academic community and related professional associations to reduce their flying frequency as a means of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and the subsequent impact on climate change. He appreciated the opportunity to present on a topic that he had been thinking about for years without pursuing it as a formal research project.

“Kenny and Kurtis said I could present on any topic as long as it was controversial, which climate change is. I think it’s great to experiment and do something different in a more eye-to-eye context where slides are less central. It is not just presenting a research paper. These talks pack a more emotional punch and are a great opportunity to practice multiple speaking formats,” he said.

Dr. Joel Mason, Director, HNRCA Cancer Cluster, also presented in October on the effects of folate on cancer, and Associate Professor Sean Cash discussed perceived cynicism of food movements and how economics can play a valuable role in their improvement in September. That same month, Administrative Coordinator Molly Nelson presented her perspective of the Friedman community as a member of the Office of Student Affairs.

“The Office of Student Affairs has the benefit of witnessing Friedman students’ entire journeys through the school—from their first admissions inquiry to Commencement—and I was glad to take advantage of the opportunity to express that benefit from an administrator’s standpoint. Of course, curiosity was also a pretty big factor [in deciding to speak],” she said.

Like Wilde, she also enjoyed the unique format of NewTrition.

“As an administrator working within an educational and research institution as well-known and respected as the Friedman School, I am frequently wowed by the depth and quality of the lectures and presentations I witness here. However, I was just as excited to hear about the launch of the NewTrition panels due to their informal nature: a format which, I believe, can offer presenters more room for personal expression and interaction with their audience,” she said.

You can listen to the September event in full below, and audio from October will be posted to YouTube soon.

Morrish and Westerman also credited Nelson with helping them to get NewTrition off the ground and overcome the logistical challenges of starting a new student-run activity. They also received support through the Student Council, and Communications Specialist Sarah Cronin was instrumental in getting the word out. So far, Morrish and Westerman are happy with what they have been able to accomplish.

“The talks have been fun and engaging, with good discussion both directly afterwards in the Q&A as well as during the discussion session after the first event. We had 20-30 people in attendance at each of the first sessions, but would love to be able to double or triple that for the future,” they said.

They already made one change in an attempt to maximize attendance. While the September event took place at night, the time was shifted to 12:15 pm for October to accommodate students who have evening classes. NewTrition attendees have enjoyed the sessions so far, particularly the change of pace from traditional seminars.

“The sessions were informative and persuasive at the same time. Generally, other seminars that I have attended are research-focused, but the NewTrition talks are from students and faculty, and I get to hear what they think about a certain issue—not just what research says,” said second-year FPAN student Ashish Pokharel.

As for growing the event beyond the 2015-2016 academic year, Morrish and Westerman would love to expand, particularly to audiences beyond Friedman: “Hopefully it will grow enough to be an event that can be attended by the public outside of Tufts. We really do want to encourage the spread of ideas and also share what we do with the non-Friedman community.”

So far, Morrish and Westerman have approached each of the presenters, but students are starting to reach out with potential topics. They encouraged interested speakers to contact them in person or via email (kurtis.morrish@tufts.edu or kenneth.westerman@tufts.edu), and they are happy to work with people in shaping their topics.

 

Matt Moore is a second-year AFE student with many controversial ideas about nutrition but doesn’t know how to present them without breaking into NSFW language. Follow him on Twitter @boxman37 for brilliant insights.

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