Undergrad science journal is launched with help of Williams junior

From the bowels of Bronfman to the wilds of Hopkins Forest, opportunities abound for Williams students to get involved in faculty guided research, senior theses, and independent projects. Yet, after all the data are collected and the papers are submitted, Div III Ephs rarely get a chance to complete the final step of the scientific process: publishing their work in nationally circulating journals.

Biniam Gebre ’00 helped to remedy this last December, when he and several other undergraduates from around the country published the inaugural issue of The National Journal of Young Investigators (JYI) on the Internet (www.JYI.org). JYI is a student- and faculty-reviewed journal that showcases excellence in undergraduate research in the biological and biomedical sciences, physical sciences, mathematics, engineering and applied sciences. With a flashy, well-designed homepage and a competitive screening process, JYI is following in the footsteps of its big-brother journals Nature and Science.

JYI came to life in February of 1997, when five students from Swarthmore, Duke, and Brown got together to invent an alternative to the limited number of undergraduate science publications. Before JYI, a college level scientist could only submit his or her work to in-house journals (eg. The Berkeley Scientific), national discipline-specific journals (The Journal of Undergraduate Research in Physics), and proceedings from national conferences. The founders of JYI conceived of something that would combine the attributes of these publications into a national, multi-disciplinary journal that would be free and universally accessible to undergraduates over the Internet.

In addition to being cost-effective, an online journal offers multi-media features not possible on the printed page. Gebre said, “A purely web-based journal gives us the freedom to incorporate cool technology like 3D modeling, videos, audio clips into the papers we publish.” With a few mouse clicks, a reader can download a QuickTime movie of courting lizards, explore a color model of a molecule in three dimensions, or listen to a sound bite of bird calls.

Before a student can submit a paper to JYI, he or she first must have a faculty member review the paper and sign a form endorsing the research. The manuscripts then zip through cyberspace to the JYI homepage, where they are sorted into three categories based on their content. As a biological and physical sciences editor, Biniam Gebre reviews a certain number of papers by a deadline, and then passes them along to his faculty advisor, Professor of Chemistry Charles Lovett, who checks his work and offers suggestions. For the December issue, the editors were flooded with 96 submissions from across the country, with a $500 prize awarded to the best of the eight selected papers.

The student editors and Board of Directors at JYI are advised by a steering committee that includes an editor from Science magazine, several Deans from Duke University, and a Director from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. In January, Gebre and the other staff of JYI were privileged to meet with the senior editors of Science magazine during the second annual JYI editorial staff conference in Anaheim, CA. In a small conference room, the undergraduates got pointers from the best in the business on the reviewing and publication process. If this weren’t enough, the student editors also received press passes to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference next door, which let them mingle with eminent scientists, journalists, and Vice-President Al Gore.

JYI has a $150,000 budget that’s supported in part by the National Science Foundation, the private Burroughs Wellcome Fund, Duke University, and Swarthmore College. Professor of Physics and Provost of the College Stuart Crampton is currently exploring ways to raise money for JYI from a consortium of colleges that may include Williams.

“I think that JYI promises to make an important contribution to scholarship by undergraduates,” Crampton explains. “If I can, I would like to help JYI raise foundation and institutional support for their operations.”

Dean of the College Peter Murphy was also impressed with JYI, saying, “I myself think [JYI] is an interesting project, and since I am an admirer of Biniam, I think better of the project for his involvement in it. As to funding, I think that is a question for the science faculty. The question is whether the science faculty feel this project can play a role in science education at Williams. I don’t think I am qualified to judge that.”

Along with Gebre, Anthony Durango ’00, currently studying away at the California Institue of Technology, is a math and engineering editor for JYI. Gebre’s enthusiasm for JYI and the success of the first issue have lured other Williams students to the journal in recent months. Gebre encourages anyone to submit to the journal and for anyone interested in the publication process (particularly first years) to apply for an editorial position.

Gebre is currently in the running for the Chief Executive Officer position of JYI and will find out the election results in mid-March. Gebre decided to apply for CEO after his inspiring experience at the January conference in Anaheim, which convinced him that JYI is a worthy cause with exceptional support from the scientific community.

If he is appointed, Gebre’s new position may even garner some modest publicity for science at Williams. Gebre explains, “My involvement in the journal as a CEO would show that Williams College has a deep interest in undergraduate research. . .it could potentially be a “capstone” to the message put forward by the Unified Science Center.”