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Spectrum

Eukaryon: 12 years of publishing student research

In 2002, Professor of Biology Shubhik DebBurman wrote a National Science Foundation grant proposal with an idea for an online student-run, peer-reviewed undergraduate life sciences research journal. 

Biology students had started to conduct more original research on and off campus, and he envisioned a publication that would showcase those academic achievements and teach students about the scientific publishing process.

Two years later, with the help of chemistry major Tulaza Vaidya ’07, now a senior research chemist with a PhD, the inaugural edition of Eukaryon went live on the Internet with a blurry cover of a developing chicken embryo. That first issue, intended to mimic the type of content published in well-known professional science research journals like Cell and Neuron, broke new ground as an undergraduate student research journal. It included 18 articles that ranged from scientific book reviews to research proposals to senior theses.

Fast forward 12 years: Eukaryon’s growth has been measurable. In 2009, Eukaryon was recognized nationally as a top teaching tool by the Society for Developmental Biology. Now recognized as a formal organization with its own budget provided by Student Government, Eukaryon is produced annually both in print and online. The latest cover features a multi-media image of a fractured glacier, which was designed by art major Ashley Ackerman ’16.

More than 40 students with different majors served on four editorial boards—review, copyediting, publishing, and features—to produce the most recent issue, which included a whopping 45 articles. Today, Eukaryon publishes papers from academic departments like sociology, philosophy, psychology, and religion that show links with the life sciences, reflecting a broader, more inclusionary publication that demonstrates the breadth and depth of scholarship at a liberal arts college.

While it is no longer uncommon for an institution to publish an undergraduate research journal, it is distinctive for one to last this long, said Elizabeth L. Ambos, executive officer of the Council on Undergraduate Research, an organization dedicated to enhancing research opportunities for students at the undergraduate level. Publications that foster collaboration across academic disciplines is a good practice that leads to greater ownership of the publication and sustainability of the effort, she added.

In addition to diversification of its membership and content, there are other reasons for Eukaryon’s longevity. The publication has clearly defined policies and procedures that promote the learning of scientific and professional skills. There is also a strong scientific curriculum and research program that integrates well with the magazine and leads to higher quality of submissions. And, having students at the helm inspires loyalty, learning, and a desire to participate. “The enduring success of Eukaryon has defied all personal expectations,” DebBurman said. “Its success is an amazing lesson in the power of the student enterprise and the strength of sciences at the College.”

Structure is everything

Structure is one reason why the publication has continued to survive while students graduate year after year. Eukaryon provides detailed editorial submission guidelines and operates under a constitution that outlines the mission statement, objectives, membership requirements, board duties, role of the advisor, and elections process. Thanks to codified succession rules, work on the next issue is already under way. Ana McCracken ’17 was elected by her peers to be editor at the end of her sophomore year, spent her junior year in training with the 2016 editor, Tyler Kaplan ’16, and has already collaborated with the editorial boards on what will be the 13th edition.

A large key to Eukaryon’s success is what DebBurman calls its “participation strategy,” which has evolved throughout the journal’s existence. All incoming members join the Features Board, where they are required to write a feature article for publication and receive guidance from Dawn Abt-Perkins, professor of education and director of the Writing Center. Once the article is accepted, they become full members and join one of the other three boards, often rotating between them. This ensures that students learn different skills, such as peer-review, copyediting, publishing, feature writing, and editorial leadership management.

The editorial board structure was introduced in the second issue, when 14 students took over the publication. While conducting all the review, copyediting, and publishing duties, they learned valuable professional and scientific skills along the way. In her letter from the editor, Katrina Brandis ’06 wrote, “The editorial team worked hard to learn the ethics, logistics, time and dedication it takes to produce this highly selective peer-reviewed publication.” But to be highly selective meant that every article had to meet the journal’s standards. Brandis remembers the awkward feeling of wondering how she and her peers would reject her fellow students’ work. While they decided to run 23 articles, two or three of the submissions were not strong enough to include. It was difficult, but the skill would serve her later as she worked with other scientists.

Critical skills

“That happens every day in the bigger world of scientific literature,” said Brandis, who went on to earn a PhD and now works as a high school science teacher. “You have to be able to tell your colleagues, ‘You know, I think I disagree with what you said or I don’t think you did that experiment correctly or you misinterpreted these results.’ To have that confidence takes a lot of growth in your logic. It was a scary process but it was also empowering in that it was all on us to make it a worthy publication, which I think it still is.”

The ability to evaluate scientific research is another critical skill that students gain through their participation with Eukaryon. Brandis said the experience taught her to become a skeptic and to think logically and critically about research results and the impact of a study. “It’s one thing to read through a journal article to gain more information about your own experiments or your own field of research,” she said. “It’s an entirely different thing to be critical of the science you read and ask the question: Is this good science? Was this the right way to conduct the experiment if this is what they were seeking to prove?”

Other students past and present also say their Eukaryon experience helped build confidence and taught them leadership, teamwork, and valuable professional skills. The third student editor, Michael Zorniak ’07, was amazed at what happened when a group of students who had no publishing experience got together. “We were able to create something that looked pretty professional, so it was a big confidence-building exercise. You’re capable of a lot more than you realize, and you jump in without being afraid,” he said.

Kaplan, the 2016 editor, realized how important it was to learn how to work as a team. “You become part of something that is much greater than yourself,” he said. “It’s such a large task that you are unable to do it by yourself.”

Along these lines, Michael Fiske ’10, editor of the sixth issue, learned how to delegate. “I’m typically someone who takes on as much responsibility as possible, but I learned that spreading the work between all of the members of the board definitely improves the quality of the end product,” he said. For Zorniak, the team environment was a supportive and fun way to learn while inspiring everyone to work hard. “Here, you’re with a large group of people who you are accountable to, which made it a lot more motivating to get the work done. You don’t want to let your friends—or your professors—down,” he said.

Strong scientific research program

Four years ago, Kim Diah ’13, who is working on her PhD, and Maria Basith ’14, a middle school science teacher, wrote a research proposal for a molecular neuroscience course that was published in Eukaryon. The paper proposed different experiments that could enhance understanding of and treatment for PKAN, a rare neurodegenerative disease found in young children that leads to many complications and an early death. A few months later, a pharmaceutical company contacted the students to consult with them about their proposal and recruit them for employment. Although they pursued other professions, the experience “exemplified that our curriculum encourages students to think outside the box, formulate exceptional ideas worth pursuing, and communicates them effectively to catch the eye of the outside world,” DebBurman said.

“A major strength of Lake Forest College sciences is our early and deep focus on undergraduate scientific research training in our students,” he added. “This ethos is particularly pervasive in how our introductory and core courses emphasize early abilities in our students to self-design research projects, and that upper-level courses expand into semester length research programs that result in full-fledged research articles. Eukaryon fits like a glove with our curriculum, because the various publication categories not only mimic the real world, but are also the direct outcomes of course work.”

Eukaryon is divided into feature and peer reviewed content. The extensive features section includes a variety of articles that highlight alumni and faculty, student participation in national conferences, off-campus research opportunities, study-abroad experiences, scientific discoveries, and more, while the peer-reviewed section includes book and film reviews, review and primary articles, senior projects and theses, creative writing, and news and views. As an indication of the journal’s quality and reach, professionals and educators have contacted students over the years with requests to use their work, including the diagrams and visual concepts presented in the articles. Many papers and senior theses published in Eukaryon have been published in national peer-reviewed journals.

Secret to Eukaryon’s success

In her new role as editor, McCracken is already making her mark. For the next issue, she wants more feature articles to tie into the theme, much like she sees in professional research journals. She convened a general board meeting this past spring, a semester earlier, to get a jump start and select the theme, “Patterns in Nature.” She also plans to recruit first-year students earlier in the year to get them involved and interested sooner.

McCracken’s ability to change and adapt Eukaryon’s processes exemplifies onereason why the publication has endured. “The secret to the organization’s success is the students’ fierce independence in self-governance,” DebBurman said. “They have successfully worked with five different faculty advisors in 12 years, sustaining quality and creativity. They constantly strive to innovate and improve, which helps them to attract exceptionally committed students to their membership. If they maintain such focused vision, Eukaryon’s future will be exceptionally bright for the long-term.”

Whether it’s this independence or something else that drives students who participate in Eukaryon, there is a strong sense of loyalty and commitment to make improvements and continue the legacy of the publication. “My biggest goal is to leave Eukaryon stronger for the next editor,” McCracken says. 