March 18, 1999
Vol. 18 No. 12

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    [Vik Reddy and Dean Astumian]Dean Astumian, Associate Professor in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology (at left), and Vik Reddy, a third-year biology major, are committed to strengthening students’ writing abilities.

    Programs help guide students to improve academic expression

    By Jennifer Leovy
    News Office

    While many University undergraduates participate in professional research during their academic careers at Chicago, they may not be aware of the opportunities that exist for enhancing their writing and publishing their work.

    These opportunities include University-sponsored programs, such as the Humanities Core Colloquium and Journal and the Biological Sciences Writing Program, as well as national publications, including the National Journal of Young Investigators.

    Third-year biology major Vik Reddy recently became an associate editor for the Biological and Biomedical Sciences section of the National Journal of Young Investigators, the first student-led national research journal written for and by undergraduates.

    While his task may be difficult, Reddy embraces the chance to edit a journal he said provides a forum for undergraduate researchers.

    Reddy joined the online publication, also known as JYI, in December 1998 after meeting with Swarthmore College undergraduate Andrew Medina-Marino, the publication’s chief executive officer. “While many undergraduates participate in scientific research, too few have the opportunity to communicate their research and results to other students––especially outside their institutions,” said Medina-Marino. “JYI answers this need by recognizing the significance of publication as an integral component of science and research training,” he said.

    Reddy said JYI provides more than training. “People get to know each other before going to graduate school, and you have a sense that you have colleagues out there––that you are fostering an undergraduate scientific community,” said Reddy.

    While governed by college peers, JYI is advised regularly by a steering committee of faculty members and professional writers and editors, including the editors of Science. At the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science earlier this year, Reddy, along with his 40 colleagues, worked with senior editors from Science to improve their editorial skills. Funding for JYI is provided by The National Science Foundation, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, GlaxoWellcome, Duke University and Swarthmore College. Office space was donated by the National Academies of Science in Washington, D.C.

    Larry McEnerney, Director of the University Writing Programs, endorses the multiple reviews and revisions that come with writing for JYI. “Typically for a college student, paper writing is a private exchange between student and professor and there aren’t many opportunities for revisions as compared to professional writing,” said McEnerney.

    McEnerney formed Chicago’s Humanities Core Colloquium and Journal so college students could reach a wider audience for their work and have more opportunities to discover the advantages of a multiple revision process. By participating in the colloquium and journal, students learn how to turn common-core papers into spoken presentations and published essays.

    McEnerney said writing effectively is an important tool for communication in any profession but learning to write in a specific field serves a subtler, more significant function. Writing a professional text imposes a mode of thinking useful to the student, “because that process of writing is training in how the field thinks,” said McEnerney.

    Jose Quintans, Master of the Biological Sciences Collegiate Division, said the division’s new writing program enhances students’ ability to understand their discipline. Quintans said Amy Lehman, Assistant Director of the Biological Sciences Writing Program (see related sidebar), works with faculty and teaching assistants to incorporate different kinds of writing assignments into the curriculum. The students’ goal is to learn the elements of a good scientific paper.

    Lehman said her collaboration with faculty members produces a range of writing assignments, from short lab-work summaries to full-length scientific articles. “A central irony of being a science student is knowing all the facts but not necessarily being able to piece them together,” said Lehman. “Writing forces students to explain the sophisticated theory behind the minutiae, and we want to give them the tools to do that.”

    Lehman added that strong writing skills are not just important for graduate school applications but in any scientific profession for vital communication.

    Reddy noted that effectively explaining to your colleagues the importance of your research contributes one piece to a puzzle that “hopefully others will build on to solve a scientific problem.”

    Although the structures are different, Reddy sees fundamental similarities in writing for the humanities and the sciences. “In science, you are given data and a hypothesis, and you come up with an interpretation that isn’t a pat answer but hopefully causes you to ask more questions,” said Reddy. “And that’s what’s asked of you in humanities papers.”

    Students interested in publishing their scientific research may contact Reddy via e-mail at voreddy@midway.uchicago.edu.

    Reddy emphasized that JYI continually is seeking paper submissions, but students should first review their papers with a faculty member. “Students should also realize that if their paper is selected by the journal, the article will be cited as a first publication,” said Reddy.

    JYI’s Web site is at http://www.jyi.org/.