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Guest Review of AFGDP

From Dr John Hyland

 

The value of the Agri-Food Graduate Development Programme

 

Individual research projects are at times isolated, where the subject area often seems disconnected from wider industry issues. Indeed, tunnel vision is a symptom that can inflict graduates to varying degrees. With this is mind I must complement the Agri-Food Graduate Development Programme (AFGDP) in their efforts, not only enhancing the knowledge and skills in the area of agri-food, but also in giving postgrads a sense of perspective. As a PhD graduate who undertook their studies in the UK, without a comparable network, I feel it is worth noting the value of the AFGDP. While I thoroughly enjoyed the research undertaken during my PhD, I sometimes felt that my subject area was somewhat detached from wider issues in the industry. What the AFGDP does particularly well is give graduates a sense of how all aspects of the food industry are intertwined. Although such provisions may seem trivial, it is important that students come to acknowledge how the many components of the food sector are often closely linked to one another.

My first experience of the AFGDP was at the three day Hot Topics in Agri-Food Science which took place in UCC in September 2015. I had begun a postdoctoral role a month previously at Teagasc in a research area that was more food based in contrast to the more agricultural focus of my PhD. Therefore, my primary reason for attending was to gain a greater appreciation of the domestic food industry. However, the course offered more than just an overview of current developments within the sector. On the first day we were treated to the presence of an industry expert who had many years’ experience working for a major international food entity. Attendees gained an appreciation of many challenges that face companies when trying to sell their products; whether it is from packaging, product placement, or advertising. Not only were insights into the inner workings of the industry provided form a global perspective but those who attended were also advised on how to use their PhD to gain employment within industry. Indeed, many attendees expressed their concerns of employment prospects after their studies had been complete but these reservations were quickly dismissed. I felt that the speaker portrayed quite comprehensively the advantages of having a PhD, both from an academic and industry viewpoint. The enthusiasm of the guest speaker led to a very enjoyable and informative first session.

A more technical focus followed the broader topic area from the first day where speakers presented on subjects such as cold plasma, hyperspectral imagining, molecular gastronomy, nanotoxicology, and supplementation. Although many of the topics that were presented were highly technical, the speakers gave clear and concise information on their respective topics. These talks were valuable in that they provided insight into facets of the industry that is often overlooked if one is not directly involved in their implementation. I left the seminars feelings that perhaps I was somewhat ignorant of the more complex aspects of food production, but nevertheless thankful for the insights that the day provided. Sometimes we only gain an appreciation of outside topic areas when they are explicitly pointed out to us.

The last day of the three day programme consisted of talks on non-conscious food behaviours, taste genetics, and a multisensory taste experience. The session was informative in that it was more consumer focused than the previous two days. Without proper consideration for the needs and demands of consumers the efforts on the processing side are superfluous. We learnt about the impact of food on health and the environment and how they might influence consumer behaviour, while also appreciating the cultural and social role of food. The importance of sensory science in food science was one which I was oblivious to as it was not something that I would had to consider for previous research projects. The speakers approach to presenting the importance of sensory tasting was particularly helpful as audience members were asked to carry out taste tests. I had not known that I was ‘’bitter-blind’’ before the programme but I was definitely aware of how my perception of bitterness may impact on what foods I enjoy by the end of the session.

Overall I think the AFGDP was valuable in that provides insights into the many connected segments of the food industry. The content provided did more than just outlay information; the enthusiasm and personable demeanour of the speakers sparked discussion and genuine interest amongst those who attended. The group size and mixed profile of the individuals presence over the three days made for a very pleasant and conducive environment where ideas and experiences could be shared freely. I would strongly encourage anyone who is deliberating on whether or not to attend one of the AFGDP workshops to just go for it; I am already looking forward to attending my next one!

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