A Conversation with ASN Executive Officer John E. Courtney, PhD
By Teresa L. Johnson, MSPH, RD

The smile on Dr. John Courtney’s face says it all: ASN’s Scientific Sessions and Annual Meeting at EB 2015 is the place to be. Courtney, who is in his ninth year as ASN’s Executive Officer, sat down with me on a sunny afternoon in Boston and chatted about the meeting and ASN’s current and future status.

TJ: What’s your favorite thing about ASN’s Annual Meeting?
JC: It’s so great for bringing together the wide, diverse audience of ASN in one central convening area. We have members in basic, clinical, and translational nutrition, and they’re housed in academia, medicine, practice, and industry. So it’s exciting to give people an opportunity to develop and build partnerships and work together, not only to advance the science but their personal careers too.

TJ: Tell me about the changes ASN members can expect to see in 2018.
JC: ASN will convene a nutrition-focused Scientific Sessions and Annual Meeting for three years beginning in 2018. EB has been a great forum for people to work within, but we think that having a nutrition-focused meeting brings together members of the nutrition science community where they can all meet and convene. It will be a smaller meeting so it will be more open to networking, less confusing, and have less competition for scheduling to allow productive connections. I envision us having a lot more flexibility in how we structure our meeting. We’ll probably do it outside the academic year, and we’ll do it in a cool place!

TJ: What are you hearing from the members regarding this change?
JC: There’s been great support from our members, and a lot of excitement. Of course, our current president, Dr. Simin Nikbin Meydani (pictured below with Dr. Courtney) of Jean Mayer USDA HNRCA at Tufts University, is a fantastic leader with great skills in consensus-building. If you make changes, you really have to go the extra mile in seeking input and cultivating agreement, and she’s done that.

TJ: How will ASN maintain the same level of quality in its meeting?
JC: A lot of questions have been raised about how we can do it the best way. Some people are concerned because they like the EB model—they like the “cross-fertilization” of scientific disciplines—so one of the things we’re hearing loud and clear is that we need to keep that cross-fertilization. So we’ll offer programming that meets all the segments of ASN’s needs.

TJ: What will be unique about ASN’s meeting?
JC: I see us having a lot of different types of activities. We can take a look at how to offer sessions that reach out to the public. Right now we reach the researchers and the practitioners, but we want to take that next leap and start to engage the public.

We’re also planning sessions that are unrelated to nutrition. Maybe we’ll hear about the newest, hottest thing in the future of information technology or the potential role that robotics can play in personalized health!

Perhaps we’ll have an inspirational session that brings in that spectacular leader or renowned speaker who says, “This is what the world is going to look like in 2050,” and asks, “How can people working in nutrition prepare for the challenges and the opportunities that will be taking place then?”

TJ: How is ASN poised to address the next five years?
JC: We have a strategic map that focuses on positioning ASN as the global authoritative leader in nutrition science. We have an actionable dashboard that identifies what our key problematic areas are and we’ve developed strategies that fit and help us meet those challenges.

For example, one of the exciting strategies that our incoming president Dr. Patrick Stover, Cornell University, wants to focus on is positioning ASN for 2028—the 100th anniversary for the Society. So, rather than looking at what we want to be in five years, we’re asking what we want to do and be in 2028; then we’re breaking it into chunks that will get us there. We’re looking at an endpoint to best add the most value.

TJ: What kinds of initiatives do you anticipate ASN will launch here in the US and abroad?
JC: I expect we’ll have a lot more topical meetings throughout the world. We have meetings now in the Middle East, Central and South America, and Asia, but I see us really taking off so that ASN will have a presence in every major continent in the next five years. Although we have that presence now with members, we don’t offer a lot of programming outside of the States so that’s what we want to do—develop programs that meet those members’ needs and grow even more.

TJ: Will ASN still be called “American Society for Nutrition”?
JC: That’s a great question! We’ve dialogued about that and had a lot of good feedback about it. I don’t envision us changing ASN—I really don’t—but we’re a volunteer organization, and if our volunteers should wish to change it, perhaps we’ll simply refer to ourselves as “ASN.” When we say our name, we each have some vision of what that means, but what we really are is a global organization. We have over 5,200 members in 72 different countries, and approximately 28% of the meeting attendees are from outside the United States. Clearly we’re drawing a global audience.

TJ: What keeps ASN relevant?
JC: ASN really is the global leader in nutrition science. Our members, our authors, and our speakers are the preeminent leaders in nutrition. They’re the ones researching today’s problems, disseminating that research through our publications and our meeting-related activities, and then taking it and translating that to dietitians, medical practitioners, and public health advocates.

ASN is really on the move. We’ve more than doubled our membership, outreach, staffing and budget in the last 10 years. In the next 10 years I think we’ll see equivalent growth in terms of our revenue and our member service activities, so we’ll have more interaction on a grander scale.

For a first-person take on Dr. Courtney’s management style, watch his video interview with CEO Update here.