You’ve probably heard the parable about a group of blind men each feeling an elephant and trying to explain to one another what they have in front of them—is it a snake (the trunk), a spear (the tusk), a rope (the tail), a wall (the flank), or a tree (a leg)? They are all right—just not completely right.
This has been my experience in IFT. I first became a member when I moved to the United States because my postdoc advisor told me that by joining, I would get cheaper conference registration. That was my sole reason.
Later, as a faculty member at Penn State, IFT meetings became the place to meet new people and reconnect with old friends, to support my students in competitions, to present my own data, and to learn new science. I knew IFT did other things, but that just didn’t seem important to me then. Spending time on the IFT board and now as president, I appreciate how limited those viewpoints were. Not wrong, just incomplete. Different people feel the elephant that is IFT in different ways.
I’ve gained a better sense of IFT’s regional diversity by spending time visiting with sections. My local section, Keystone, has always had a strong interest in snack foods and confectionery, but going to Bluegrass, everyone seemed to be involved in some way with the distilled spirits industry, and in Long Island, there were many strong family connections around flavor businesses. All the sections are recognizably part of the same organization but vary widely in program, interest, and size depending on the local needs of their community.
IFT is now doing even more to support our sections. The new membership model offers an affordable way for volunteers to get involved, and the leadership summits provide a great way to network and share ideas. To build stronger integration across the organization, we have identified IFT board members as liaisons to each section and provided funding to allow them to visit and make that essential personal connection.
Since becoming more involved with IFT, I’ve also gained a better sense of the generational diversity within the Institute by spending time with groups at different career stages. I work a lot with students in my regular job, but seeing how they gain from the leadership opportunities in IFTSA is inspiring. If you didn’t check out the student programs at IFT17, then you missed out, and I highly encourage you to put that on your list for IFT18! Another highlight of IFT17 for me was having dinner with the IFT past presidents, some of whom were developing products and solving problems before I was born. All of these members value IFT but look to engage and contribute in very different ways.
Because of this diversity, IFT is building programs tailored to members at different career stages. For example, we are now seeing much more programing designed by and for new professionals, and we are currently developing better ways to support members in career transitions. I congratulate Noel Anderson for his leadership of Feeding Tomorrow, the IFT foundation, in developing better ways for members at all career stages to give back to the profession.
Throughout my presidency, I’ve come to appreciate the different ways IFT is important for members whose lives, careers, and interests are quite unlike mine. However, while appreciating the diversity we have in IFT, we must also acknowledge the diversity we lack. We had our first female president in 1997, our first president living outside the United States only last year, and none of IFT’s presidents to date has been a person of color.
When we look around our meetings, we see the people who felt IFT was the right place for them. They felt welcome and they stayed. We don’t see the people who either never came or those who quickly left. To ensure we encourage diversity and inclusion across all of IFT, we’ve implemented a diversity taskforce chaired by my successor, Cindy Stewart. I hope you had a chance to participate in some of their focus groups at IFT17. We’ll hear much more about IFT actions in the coming year, but in the meantime, I encourage you to look around your networks and think how you can support diversity and inclusion across the Institute and the profession.
We all have different needs and different perspectives on what IFT means for our own lives, careers, and networks, and we may all be feeling different parts of the elephant. However, it’s important we understand that we are better off whole than in parts, making it important that we continue to innovate and work together not only to benefit ourselves, but for the future of our profession and the positive impact we can have on the global food supply.