When Bill Hildebolt worked as a product development researcher at Campbell Soup Co., one of his responsibilities was to keep abreast of any negative reports concerning the company’s products.
Hildebolt, who led the team that developed Prego Spaghetti Sauce during his tenure at the company, remembers being surprised and angered at the sometimes exaggerated criticisms leveled against food and agriculture.
“Then and now, when these claims were investigated, most were proven to be false and based on junk science and urban mythology,” Hildebolt said. “It is our job as trained professionals in food and agriculture to respond appropriately to those claims which are true and based on science, and to refute those which are not.”
Today, in his second career as president of Nature’s Select, a lawn care company based in North Carolina, and on his family farm operation in Ohio, he faces similar criticisms about genetically modified organisms, pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals often used in both agriculture and lawn care.
“If you don’t challenge junk science and myths, people will accept and propagate them as truth,” he said.
That philosophy is what led Hildebolt to start a fund to support a new student group at The Ohio State University.
The group, Citation Needed, focuses on how to communicate about science, particularly about food and agricultural issues. Hildebolt’s funding allows the group to bring guest speakers to campus to shed light on science communication.
Composed primarily of students in the departments of Food Science and Technology and Agricultural Communication, Education, and Leadership, the group discusses how to address myths without alienating people who might have a different view, said Annie Specht, assistant professor in ACEL and one of the group’s advisers.
“For a lot of people involved in science, the end product is a journal article,” Specht said. “But we should embrace the idea that we need to talk to the public in an informal but impactful way.
“The big payoff of this group is seeing students who wouldn’t be getting this type of communications training really embrace the idea of storytelling. We have a large group of students from food science involved in hands-on undergraduate and graduate research, but they haven’t had the opportunity to learn how to tell their story. With Citation Needed, I can see them getting excited about it.”
Michael Dzakovich, a doctoral student in the Department of Horticulture and Crop Science, is the group’s president. His research focuses on tomato genetics related to pigment compounds and the implications they might have for human health.
“None of my family members are in my field of study, so I’ve had to learn to talk about science at a more approachable level,” he said. “That ties in really well into what Citation Needed does.”
With the rise of social media over the last decade, Dzakovich has seen more and more people latch onto ideas about food and agriculture that may be skewed.
“There’s a platform that anyone can get on and express their opinions, and it’s easy for people to get on board with things that may not be true,” he said.
“Our job as scientists is to come out and say, ‘Here’s what’s actually going on,’ and to do that in a way that’s not condescending.”
In 2016, the group brought in author and public speaker Kavin Senapathy and social scientist and writer Cami Ryan. In early 2017, they will hear from Paige Jarreau, science communication specialist with Louisiana State University who focuses on telling compelling stories through social media and by using artwork and graphic design.
In addition, the group has also started meeting every other month with faculty members and graduate students for an informal coffee hour, said Kelly Elisar, communication manager for the Department of Food Science and Technology and another of the group’s advisers.
“We talk about topics like GMOs (genetically modified organisms), and high-fructose corn syrup, and the ‘clean label’ movement, and how to approach having conversations about these issues,” Elisar said.
The student group is open to anyone at Ohio State, Elisar and Specht said.