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UW journal of undergraduate research publishes first issue

Seven researchers who happen to be undergraduate students at the University of Wisconsin–Madison now share a point on their curricula vitae with their professors and mentors: author credit for a published scientific study. And they have about 40 of their peers to thank for it.

Last week, The Journal of Undergraduate Science and Technology (JUST) — completely run by undergraduate volunteers — published its first issue.

Anticipation was high.

“We heard from people at College Library saying, ‘People are coming in looking for your journal. Bring it over here!’” says Eddie Ruiz, a CALS genetics major who shares JUST co-founder and co-editor-in-chief titles with fellow junior Stephanie Seymour.

JUST cover

Back in December, while the duo was still recruiting what would become a staff of more than 30, they put out a call for submissions of original research conducted by UW–Madison undergrads. They hoped to offer an opportunity to participate in a part of the academic research process typically reserved for more experienced lab mates, and many jumped at the opportunity.

Alex Goke, a senior from Waupaca who will graduate Saturday with degrees in botany, conservation biology and life sciences communication, saw the call for submissions and decided to rethink some classwork he had done on the unusual geographic distribution of a genus of African trees called Afrocarpus.

“Writing for school versus writing for publication is a very different framework, and I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to explore that process as an undergraduate,” says Goke, who will spend the summer working in zoology professor Ellen Damschen’s lab. “I highly encourage anyone who has conducted undergraduate research to consider submitting to JUST — it’s a great opportunity to become familiar with the peer review process and will undoubtedly be a valuable experience, especially to those considering graduate studies.”

His work, “Molecular clock dating of São Tomé and Príncipe floral endemics: A case study in Afrocarpus,” was one of four studies chosen for the inaugural issue of JUST — and was selected by the journal staff as the best manuscript and winner of a $200 prize sponsored by the Holtz Center for Science and Technology Studies.

Editors pointed to the depth of supporting data and Goke’s clear presentation of the way Afrocarpus species became established on a relatively isolated island far from the trees’ ancestral home. It doesn’t hurt that the author is able to succinctly explain why he thinks the science is important even to a campus full of students who will likely never visit São Tomé.

“If we know how the distributions of species have shifted throughout history, we can use this information to predict how they will react to the challenges they are facing today,” Goke says. “This will become important as our climate changes due to global warming, habitat is lost to degradation and fragmentation, and diseases and invasive species continue to spread.”

Alongside Goke’s work on African tree genetics, JUST readers will find studies on satellite meteorology, biomaterials and plant biology, as well as articles on neutrino hunter Francis Halzen, high-profile gene editing tool CRISPR-Cas9, drug prices and a team of College of Engineering students tackling a futuristic mass transit project.

“We’re proud of how many different disciplines we were able to represent in the first issue,” says Seymour, a molecular biology and economics major. “There are undergraduates contributing in almost every department and field we have on campus, and we want to represent that as best we can in the journal.”
Plans are for the student organization to publish an issue each semester. Research can be submitted for the journal’s second issue, which will be published in late fall, from now until Sept. 16.

“We’re giving people more time to submit their research for future issues,” says Ruiz. “We are hoping that this will increase the number of submissions, and give authors more time to refine their work.”

There will also be a monetary prize awarded to the best manuscript submitted for the fall issue.

While it may be hard to put down one of the 750 glossy, physical copies of JUST distributed around campus, all of the stories in the print edition — as well as some interactive and supplemental graphics — are reproduced at the journal’s website, justjournal.org.

“The discussion we’ve had most often with people is ‘OK, it’s great that you want to publish a physical journal. But the direction journals are going is online, so why not start with something digital?’” Seymour says. “But really, we couldn’t help ourselves. We wanted to print it.”

That made for an extra-hectic spring semester for the staff, who tackled from scratch (with advice from faculty and staff around campus) the challenges of careful review of scientific research, editing, design, marketing and publication production.

“It’s only because we had so much interest from so many people with different skills that we got this done at all,” Seymour says. “And the help from professors and the provost’s office and the library system … it’s great to be on a campus like UW–Madison where we can find all this expertise.”

Support to publish JUST’s inaugural issue came from the Office of the Dean of the College of Letters & Science, the Associated Students of Madison, the Johnson Fund for Innovation and Collaboration and the Holtz Center for Science and Technology Studies.

The co-editors have already shifted their focus to the future. Much of the original staff will stay on for next year, but there are plenty of openings for interested students to join the team. Applications for positions can be found on JUST’s website.

“No matter if you’re in the school of journalism, business, engineering — there’s a place for your expertise,” Seymour says.

And no shortage of new endeavors on the drawing board. There may be a speaker series in the works. And a partnership with an open access publisher to create a digital platform to share publications with a larger audience. And a plan to give attention to some of the deserving submissions that didn’t make the cut for the first print issue.

“We saved some of them that didn’t get published for possible publication in the future,” Ruiz says. “We have so many exciting ideas for the future of this organization. I can’t wait to see what we will do next with the incredible research that is being conducted at this university.”

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

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