Jan. 28, 2010

Lester Wilson

Lester Wilson followed his own advice -- "Do what you love" -- when he came to Iowa State to teach and advise students. Photo by Bob Elbert.

Ketchup or salsa?

by Barbara McBreen, Agriculture and Life Sciences Communications

Do Americans consume more ketchup or salsa in one year?

Lester Wilson knows the answer.

Wilson, a University Professor in food science and human nutrition, has a buffet of tidbits about the science of food. It's the type of fun-food trivia Wilson shares with students in his introductory food science classes.

"Who would have thought, from the condiment standpoint, that more salsa is sold in the United States each year than ketchup?" Wilson said.

Using humor in the classroom, Wilson said, helps loosen up students. His methods work. He has won numerous awards for his teaching and advising skills.

"I try to get students to become good consumers and understand why it's important to understand the labels and how it all relates to marketing," Wilson said.

Love what you do

"I enjoy seeing students succeed."

Lester Wilson

If you attend any food science student event, you'll find him surrounded by students. It's evident he enjoys what he's doing -- and that's the advice he gives students.

"I tell students to find something they enjoy, and they won't find a better job." Wilson said.

Wilson, who grew up in Portland, originally planned to go into forestry. A chemistry teacher stirred his interest in food and mentors helped him find his passion. After earning his Ph.D. from the University of California, Davis, Wilson came to Iowa State because of its emphasis on teaching and student advising.

Along with teaching and advising, he also takes time to help ag education teachers, FFA chapters and 4-H clubs. Last year he was recognized for his outreach work and awarded the first Iowa Farmers Union Education Award.

Taking time to attend commencement events always is on his schedule because he enjoys seeing students off at graduation. He doesn't always remember their last names, but he remembers where they sat in his large lecture class, which seats almost 300 students.

"I'll say, 'Help me with your last name. I know you sat in the fourth row, three seats in,'" Wilson said. "I enjoy seeing students succeed."

After graduation, students often contact him to tell him how useful his classes were in preparing them for a career in the food industry.

"When they come back and say I made them successful, I tell them, 'No you made yourself successful, I just helped along the way and gave you some tools,'" Wilson said. "I like to help them develop their critical thinking skills, because in the food industry they have to make tough decisions every day."

Dedicated to students

Andy Zehr is one of those students. Zehr, director of recruitment for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said he wasn't really interested in food science, but Wilson has a way of making science interesting.

"My focus was marketing and advertising, but he found a way to make me understand scientific concepts and make them fun," Zehr said. "He's a tireless advocate for students."

Brittany Springmeier, senior in food science and culinary science, currently is taking a food quality control class from Wilson. She said he's a dedicated professor.

"The content is sometimes quite dry and he's the best one to teach it because he livens it up," Springmeier said. "He's always telling jokes and stories related to food science."

Careers for ISU graduates

In 2009, the food science department began offering a culinary science major. Wilson said it's an indication of the popularity and broad range of topics food science covers.

"As long as people eat, there will be jobs for food scientists," Wilson said.

Current trends in food science include cause marketing, such as fair trade and green products, Wilson said. Food scientists also are seeking ways to reduce obesity in children, feed an aging population, reduce sodium in food and give consumers a gourmet dining experience at home.

Today, food science graduates pursue careers in nutrition, food science, marketing, research, sales, dietetics and product development.

"One of our students worked with a team that took a product to market, and within six months they had a $6 million dollar product on the market," Wilson said.