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New journal to publish research by UW–Madison undergraduates

Each year, thousands of University of Wisconsin-Madison undergraduates get their first exposure to work in a research laboratory, some contributing to studies that may eventually be published by their faculty mentors in high-profile scientific journals.

undergrads in lab
Undergraduates AnaElise Beckman, Michael Zaiken and Alexandra Cohn (left to right) prepare a bacteria culture in a research lab at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery (WID) in 2013. An estimated 36 percent of UW-Madison undergrads have worked with a professor on some sort of research. Photo: Jeff Miller

But it’s not all that often that undergraduates see their names on journal authors’ lists, and Eddie Ruiz and Stephanie Seymour — both UW-Madison juniors and accomplished lab workers — hope to change that by launching The Journal of Undergraduate Science and Technology (JUST).

“It’s not like there aren’t venues for undergraduates to present research,” says Seymour, a molecular biology and economics major. “There’s an undergraduate research symposium and classes like (Biology 152) that have poster sessions. But we both realize from our own experience that presenting a poster and writing a paper are much different processes.”

This spring, with two years working as an undergraduate lab assistant under her belt, Seymour helped biomedical engineering professor Kris Saha and his collaborators complete, write and publish a study in Biotechnology Journal. The team of eight authors described an automated method for examining individual living cells in detail, a technique that could be useful for drug screening and plotting the development of stem cells used in regenerative medicine.

“People tend to think undergrads are working on small parts of a research project,” says Ruiz, a CALS genetics major with an interest in computer science and biomedical engineering who works in the lab of cardiology professor and stem cell researcher Timothy Kamp. “While this is definitely true, there are also many students like me and Stephanie who are working independently on research projects that justify greater attention.”

JUST, which is a registered student organization, will publish peer-reviewed studies whose first authors are UW-Madison undergraduates working in any scientific discipline that typically produces research for publication. It would likely be Madison’s first foray into a journal format that is already popular at other research universities such as Caltech, Harvard and Texas. There is also a national publication, the American Journal of Undergraduate Research.

With hundreds of undergraduates participating each year in UW-Madison’s Undergraduate Research Symposium, and a long list of friends and acquaintances already interested in writing up their work, Ruiz and Seymour — who will serve as the journal’s first co-editors-in-chief — expect plenty of interest when they open their first window for submissions on Jan. 19.

Until then, they are recruiting other undergraduate volunteers to fill the panel of reviewers who will scrutinize submissions and to edit, design and market the publication. Students can apply throughJUST’s website.

Students present research projects
Students present research projects to attendees at the Undergraduate Research Symposium at Union South in April. Photo: Bryce Richter

“We want everyone involved in the management of the journal to get a unique scientific experience,” Seymour says. “We want the writers to learn how to be better writers and the peer reviewers to learn about the peer review process, so when they go to graduate school and become scientists they have that knowledge.”

Seymour began picturing a journal for undergrads as a way to learn more about what her friends in physics or chemistry labs are doing. Ideally, according to the founders, JUST would take a step beyond deeply technical subject matter to reach an audience that is not steeped in the minutiae of a particular branch of science.

“We want the details of rigorous research to be there for people who want to look at the work more deeply, but we also want the people who aren’t doing that particular research to be able to understand it,” Ruiz says. “That may be the biggest challenge of the whole journal, to strike the balance between hardcore science and the lay audience.”

That’s important to Seymour, whose Biotechnology Journal byline appears on a paper titled, “High-content imaging with micropatterned multiwell plates reveals influence of cell geometry and cytoskeleton on chromatin dynamics.”

“That’s not an accessible way to tell someone what I’m doing,” says Seymour, who hopes the first issue of JUST will include easily digestible breakdowns of at least a few of the studies it publishes. “We want people to have a larger appreciation of what’s been done through some lay language review articles highlighting some of the studies.”

The editors hope to eventually issue awards for the best papers and host talks on publishing and emerging areas of research, but for now they’re focused on assembling a staff and providing an outlet for a growing crowd of unpublished, but enthusiastic, researchers.

“I just read that 36 percent of undergraduates here have worked with a professor on some sort of research. That’s more than 10,000 people, and 10,000 papers to publish,” Seymour says. “Everyone says we’ve needed this for a while and they want to find a way to be involved. So we’re aiming for a lot, because there are a lot of good things we could do.”

This story was originally published on the UW-Madison News site.