How Undergraduate Journals Foster Scientific Communication

“Too often, people ignore that a key part of being a scientific leader is being a communicator,” says Peter Kalugin, a senior at Johns Hopkins University.

But how can students start fostering the skills to communicate scientific concepts? National and institutional undergraduate science journals offer platforms in which participants can engage in science writing for students, by students. Many undergraduate journals publish original student research papers as well as science news and review articles that condense complex ideas into a written piece that–ideally–readers without an extensive science background can easily digest.

According to Kalugin, who is also the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Young Investigators (JYI), “Most of JYI’s readers are undergraduates, often from abroad, and interacting with our journal makes it easier for them to join the international scientific community. I think that the geographical and disciplinary breadth of the scientific dialogue in JYI makes it a unique way for young scientists from around the world to make lasting connections while exchanging their research.”

Cover of the Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science. Source: Wikipedia

1) Undergraduate Science Journals help students to summarize complex concepts

Students can also take advantage of the number of opportunities offered by undergraduate science journals to gain professional skills. First, writing articles pushes students to translate complex scientific concepts into a concise article that can describe the nature of and the importance of scientific findings to a wider audience. This process provides an opportunity for students to delve into their topic of interest and allows them to reinforce what they have learned.

By participating in a student-run research journal, Andy Zureick, a medical student at the University of Michigan and a former Editor-in-Chief of the Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science (DUJS), learned “how to report research findings in the form of a science news article and how to write a scientific review article and synthesize information from primary literature, news articles, textbooks, and other sources into a paper accessible to an audience with limited exposure to a particular field.” Zureick was able to pick up a number of useful skills in science communication.

2) Undergraduate Science Journals provide an opportunity for students to hone their writing skills

Moreover, students who participate in undergraduate science journals can also improve their writing skills in a supportive and low-risk environment and acquaint themselves in practices common in science journals and journalism in general, such as conducting peer-reviews and undertaking performing fact-checks to ensure that an article is as accurate as possible.

“It’s through journals like JYI that students can learn to write and talk comfortably in a scientific context,” says Kalugin. Proficiency in verbal communication is a valued skill in any field. Working closely with a peer editor who can pinpoint problems in a written piece can can help student writers to learn critical skills like avoiding grammar errors and organizing their ideas effectively.

Zureick credits the DUJS’s emphasis on training and education for guiding him through the–at first, daunting–writing process by pairing him up with more experienced upperclassmen editors. “ I was initially intimidated when initially faced with the challenge of writing an article on a specific area of science in which I was nowhere near an expert, but with the mentorship and guidance of upperclassmen running the DUJS at the time, I learned how to effectively communicate key findings and takeaways in otherwise dense articles or science lectures.”

“I’ve already used what I learned from my experiences with the DUJS in various scholarly endeavors in medical school, and I’m grateful to have had the formative experience I did as an undergraduate science journalist and editor.” The skills that Andy picked up at Dartmouth have come in handy, now that he finds himself training for a career as a clinician-investigator.

3) Undergraduate Science Journals introduces students to the world of academic articles

Noor Al-Alusi, the Co-Editor-in-Chief of the UCLA Undergraduate Science Journal, also points out the skills that students can gain by taking on the leadership of these publications, which can often be complex. “I’ve had to develop the ability to evaluate research in fields other than my own specialty. By reviewing and editing articles, I have also learned how to quickly spot critical characteristics of strong or weak research articles.”

This sentiment is echoed by Kalugin, “Writing about science is an indispensable part of every academic career, and I feel that my work with JYI has prepared me well for this task. In addition, I have learned how to better manage a large group of my peers, a skill that will be critical when I start my own lab in the future.” Kalugin is also confident that the skills that he is learning on the job will help him in his own path in becoming a physician-scientist.

Thanks to the Internet, students are getting a taste for scientific writing by contributing to and organizing a host of undergraduate science journals, thereby creating a new generation of scientists who are ready to communicate their findings to the general public.

Illustration by Yoo Jung Kim

Author: Mike Klymkowsky

I am a Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder. Growing up in Pennsylvania, I earned a bachelors degree in biophysics from Penn State then moved to California and earned a Ph.D. from CalTech (working for a time at UCSF and the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic). I was a Muscular Dystrophy Association post-doctoral fellow at University College London and the Rockefeller University before moving to Boulder. My research has involved a number of topics, including neurotransmitter receptor structure, cytoskeletal organization and ciliary function, neural crest formation, and signaling systems in the context of the clawed frog Xenopus laevis as well as biology education research, leading to the development of the Biological Concepts Instrument (BCI), a suite of virtuallaboratory activities, and biofundamentals, a re-designed introductory molecular biology course. I have a close collaboration with Melanie Cooper (@Michigan State) that has resulted in transformed (and demonstrably effective and engaging) course materials in general and organic chemistry known as CLUE: Chemistry, Life, the Universe & Everything. I was in the first class of Pew Biomedical Scholars and am a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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