What can a strategic partnerships manager learn from attending a scientific conference?

It turns out, a lot. Karin VanSlyke, strategic partnerships manager with Informa Markets/SupplySide, offers her thoughts on what industry professionals could gain by attending the International Conference on the Science of Botanicals.

Karin VanSlyke, Strategic partnerships manager, SupplySide

May 6, 2024

6 Min Read
Karin VanSlyke, strategic partnerships manager with Informa Markets/SupplySide, smiles during the 2024 International Conference on the Science of Botanicals (ICSB) while standing next to Ikhlas Khan, Ph.D., who directs the National Center for Natural Products Research at the University of Mississippi.

I was recently provided with the opportunity to attend a scientific conference on a topic very different from my educational background. Often, people attend scientific conferences because they are experts in that particular field of study. And even though my degree is in political science, I am most certainly not a scientist. I’m a strategic partnerships manager! So, did this experience cause me to retreat, longing for the familiar — or did I step toward the unknown, curious and ready to learn? Luckily, my first time attending the International Conference on the Science of Botanicals (ICSB) pushed me solidly into the realm of the latter and gave me reason to believe that industry professionals should attend scientific conferences. 

A few months ago, my amazing manager and industry veteran, Jon Benninger, suggested I attend this annual conference, now in its 22nd year, with these goals in mind: “Go and learn. Immerse yourself in the industry. Seek to understand.” I am relatively new to “the industry,” and he believed that by attending this conference, I would add another layer of understanding as I dive deeper into the industry and into my role. I was going to be surrounded by the preeminent minds of the botanical sciences world, and that prospect both excited me and made me a little nervous to attend. Again, I am not a scientist. 

Not so long ago, my knowledge of supplements, ingredients and botanicals didn’t go much further than what I gleaned by reading the label on my bottle of daily vitamins. Now, in a very significant way, this world — this industry — is part of who I am. In my role, I strive to add value to my company and our valuable partners. My goal is that by doing this well, together we will ultimately strengthen the health and nutrition industry that we all care so much about. 

My ICSB experience 

Hosted by the National Center for Natural Products Research and director Ikhlas Khan, Ph.D., ICSB focuses on all aspects of medicinal and aromatic plants and welcomes international and national participants from industry, academia and nonprofit institutions. The conference is held in the beautiful town of Oxford, Mississippi. Best known as the home of Ole Miss (University of Mississippi), William Faulkner’s grave, Square Books, and more charm than you can shake a stick at, Oxford is well-equipped to become a temporary home for the over 300 ICSB attendees who are there to speak, learn and participate.  

A week before the conference, I studied the full agenda, and Jon and I discussed which sessions might be most beneficial for me to attend. This helped me align my goals with my schedule and avoid any last minute “which session should I attend?” panic. I arrived in Memphis on Sunday evening and met my colleagues for dinner and live music on Beale Street. Not a bad way to spend an evening! We then drove to Oxford, excited and ready to start early the next morning. 

The conference kicked off with a welcome by Dr. Khan, along with a presentation by Cara Welch, Ph.D., director of FDA’s Office of Dietary Supplement Programs. This was followed by “30 Years of DSHEA” featuring talks by Loren Israelsen, president and founder of SupplySide partner United Natural Products Alliance (UNPA), and Bill Giebler, content and insights director of Nutrition Business Journal (NBJ). Mark Blumenthal of partner organization American Botanical Council (ABC) presented to a sizable audience later in the week. Side note: Blumenthal has long been known as “The Herbal Cowboy,” so I wouldn’t expect anything less than a crowd. It was rewarding to see some of my favorite partner organizations sharing their knowledge and unique perspectives. 


ICSB’s commitment to strengthening the industry was apparent on all four days of sessions. Talks varied from the uber-scientific to more broadly-based knowledge sharing. Standout sessions for me included those involving Afro-Caribbean plants and their influence in the American South, as well as (often eye-opening) talks by FDA about ingredient fraud and adulteration. ABC is very involved with adulteration prevention, and the Botanical Adulterants Prevention Program (BAPP) language has recently been added to the SupplySide East and SupplySide West compliance pages, so this was very timely. I also thoroughly enjoyed learning about Africa’s rich botanical history and the opportunities, progress and challenges unique to its industry. With each session, I learned new things and stretched my capacity to absorb in a way that was rewarding. I still find myself thinking about what I learned. 

My colleagues and I took advantage of the offer to tour the medicinal plant garden on the grounds of the beautiful Ole Miss campus. I was amazed by their cataloging process as well as the greenhouse full of beautiful specimens. We also experienced true Mississippi charm (and humidity – wow!) by walking to and from the lovely Oxford square. Although I complained about the heat more than once, these walks gave us a sense of place and time to get to know each other and share our personal and professional stories — invaluable byproducts of attending in-person events in an increasingly remote world. 

I spoke with people who have been attending this conference for many years, as well as plenty of first-time participants. I often heard the word “family” when attendees described their impressions of the conference. Talking with strangers felt more like visiting with friends, as opposed to “networking,” thanks to the atmosphere ICSB provides. Because all events were communal, I was able to connect with people I might not have had the opportunity to otherwise meet. From the opening reception at the beautiful Lyric venue in Oxford, to India night, bowling and fish fry, and culminating with the uniquely hilarious “roast” by Dr. Khan on the final night of the conference, we were provided with many opportunities to socialize and meet other attendees in fun and relaxing atmospheres. 

After returning and having some time to reflect on my experience, I firmly believe that industry professionals have so many reasons to attend relevant scientific conferences. And if ICSB is relevant to you, consider going. Opportunities abound at ICSB to learn, expand your network, build relationships, and hear about industry developments. You will likely emerge from the conference as a more well-rounded colleague and share your new insights with your team. This experience has also sparked some ideas about connecting our industry colleagues and partners with the scientific community.  

Plus, as Loren promised me in an email a few weeks prior to the conference, “plan on meeting a bushel full of fine folks. You will love the spirit of the event.” He was right and I can’t wait to return. 



About the Author(s)

Karin VanSlyke

Strategic partnerships manager, SupplySide , Informa Markets

Karin VanSlyke is the strategic partnerships manager for SupplySide at Informa Markets. She works to manage and add value to existing partnerships, develop new partnership opportunities, and strengthen industry connections. Karin lives in Dallas, Texas with her husband and two spoiled rescue dogs. Karin is a proud first-generation college graduate of Southern Methodist University, where she earned a bachelor's degree in political science and was inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society. Her passions include connecting people, cooking (and eating) all sorts of cuisines, road trips and bird watching. 

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