The academic landscape can be, let’s face it, pretty hostile. Whether it’s publications, proposals, or elbow-padded blazers, the adornments of academia can feel as unattainable as winning the lottery. But sometimes, even in the most barren terrain, you can stumble upon an oasis. U of T’s Journal of Undergraduate Life Sciences (JULS, sounds like “Jules”) is just that.Established in the summer of 2006, JULS was conceived by a small group of students who wanted an outlet for publishing research conducted by life science students at U of T. Three years and as many issues later, JULS, once the little engine that could, is now a full-sized freight train and a force to be reckoned with. The journal is now sponsored by undergraduate departments ranging from pharmacology to physiology to molecular genetics, and boasts an ample roster of life science faculty advisors. Its editorial review board also gives students the chance to get involved in the peer-review process. And for those who aspire to more authorial ambitions, JULS accepts a range of pieces for publication, including research articles, mini-reviews, and letters.The JULS process includes some input from faculty advisors, who provide support and who can review articles. But the bulk of reviewing goes to the student editorial board, making it a real student-run endeavour. According to Andy Dicks of the Department of Chemistry, “Once you have the peer-review process in place, that’s crucial. Because it validates the science, and you don’t just get any old stuff rearing its head in there, stuff that hasn’t been checked properly.”JULS also emphasizes its interdisciplinary mandate by accepting pieces from a wide range of sciences, sometimes extending beyond the life sciences. “Although JULS is life science, and chemistry is a physical science,” says Dicks, “there were quite a few chemistry articles that were published in JULS. I thought that was great, because that was a real chance for our students to showcase their chemistry to a life science audience, partly so that life science students realize that chemistry is a big part of their curricula and their lives generally.”But of course there’s always room for improvement. According to Ivana Stehlik from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, “the only thing I would, from my perspective, like to see is more articles from the ecology or evolutionary front. Mostly it’s medical science, so I hope that there will be an equal chance for everybody to get in.”While JULS does accept non-research articles, most professors are keen about pursuing research at the undergraduate level. Research opportunities during the summer or during the year, like the second- and third-year research opportunity courses and fourth-year research projects, are great for “giving the undergraduate student a taste of what research is like,” says Physiology professor William MacKay. “It’s a total mystery to everybody until they actually do it. So it’s kind of pointless to aim for graduate school and then discover, once you’re in a Master’s program, that you hate it!”“Don’t think of it as something extra, on top of your classes,” adds Dicks. “You’ll learn things doing research that you can’t possibly learn any other way. Sometimes there’s this perspective that undergraduates can’t do research, or they’re not ready for research until they become graduate students. I would contend that my experience and the experience of my colleagues is that there are plenty of very good second-year undergraduates who do excellent research, if they are given the right type of project. That’s the key thing.”While one of JULS’ missions is to give students a taste of academia outside the lab and classroom, it also tries to promote communication, both among scientists and with the public. This has important implications, not only at the student level, but also in the world at large.“People with a lot of power, both in commerce and in political structures, are having to make major decisions about matters which are scientific, whether it’s climate, nuclear energy, medical technology, drugs, vaccines [or] rapid trains,” says Andrew Baines, coordinator and professor for the Vic One life science seminar. “Pretty well everything that creates our current society and the high standard of living we have is related in some way or another to science and technology. And that means that you want to have an informed population who understand the concepts and a good chunk of the words that are used in science. And part of the problem is the words—that a lot of scientists use unnecessarily obscure words.“We need to educate people on the scientific side to be able to communicate to each other across disciplines within the sciences. An engineer talking to a psychologist: that can be extremely important when you’re designing the cockpit of a train or an airplane. But you need to talk the same language, and very often they don’t. And certainly when you’re talking to the politician or the CEO of a major company who wants to exploit a particular piece of technology, he has to understand what he’s getting into.”According to William Navarre from the Department of Molecular Genetics, there are also problems in the ways in which the popular media communicates science—something that hits home for Varsity science writers. “The problem comes with the disconnect between how a complex and nuanced subject like science gets translated to laypeople through traditional media sources. Traditional media sources are deadline- and headline-driven, and this is inherently incompatible with how science actually operates. It’s only gotten worse with the Internet as readers and watchers are increasingly distracted and at the same time news outlets are increasingly receptive to quick sound bites with little regard for fact-checking or complex viewpoints—in fact they often lack the ability, time and funds to do fact-checking. Almost every article about science recently is hype-driven, and it does the public little service. Go back to any health science–related article from 15 years ago and see if any of the hype was actually lived up to; 99 per cent of the time it was a blip on the radar and then forgotten about.”But there’s also a part of science writing that shows the science wordsmith’s human side. At the risk of sounding foolish to all the arts students out there, most science students will admit that science is exciting and beautiful. “People need to see scientific writing as literature, when it’s possible to do so,” says Baines.So what makes for good science writing? According to Navarre, “a good science piece first and foremost targets its audience. Second, it poses an interesting question or mystery up front and does so in a way that engages the reader. Then it goes about solving the mystery through the evidence. At the end I hope it actually answers or almost answers the question that was posed up front. This question-answer format can be successfully followed for a science article written for kids or to a highly specialized audience. Third, good writing in any field or subject is direct and avoids being superfluous or wordy.”Baines adds, “I think that probably one of the first things you look at in people who are starting out writing is: do they have a clear grasp of who they’re talking to and what style they should be using? And do they have a clear grasp of what the question is that they’re dealing with? Once they get beyond that, then they’ve got to marshal their evidence and put it together in a coherent fashion. And beware of using too many adjectives. It’s just very basic rhetoric.”At the end of the day, JULS serves a pretty noble purpose. From promoting student research to giving students a chance to take part in interdisciplinary communication, it looks like three-year-old JULS will be sticking around for the years to come.“I think the most important function [JULS] serves right now is not so much for the reader as for the writer,” says Doug Templeton of the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology, “in giving the students an opportunity to go through the exercise of writing up their work, and at the same time doing it in a way that is going to have to be put in front of the public and that they’re going to have to take responsibility for.”Who knows? Maybe thanks to JULS, that elbow-padded blazer might even start fitting better.
Publishing in JULS: The deets
The research article
2,000-3,000 words.The research article lets student authors who have contributed significantly to original research to submit a piece addressing a new and interesting question in the life sciences.
1,500-2,500 words.Students who haven’t had the chance to conduct original research can submit mini-review articles, which present an in-depth look at narrowed-down and intriguing topics.
1,000-1,500 words.Letters are the more concise versions, and allow authors to present their original research along with a discussion of its significance within a broader context.
Research articles and mini-reviews: eligible candidates fall under two categories. The first consists of U of T undergraduates who have worked with a supervisor on a fourth-year thesis project, 299 Research Opportunity Program course, or summer research placement at U of T or its affiliated research institutions. Undergraduate students outside of U of T who have conducted research for at least three months under the supervision of a U of T faculty member are also eligible.Letters: these articles are open to a wider range of authors, including any undergraduate enrolled in a four-year undergraduate program at any Canadian university.
JULS & communicating science: What the experts say
“Communication is important in science because if you simply do science and don’t communicate the results, you haven’t really contributed anything. [It] is a very important part of doing research. But I think it goes beyond that. I think the exercise of communication also helps clarify our thinking quite a lot, and I often find that I actually get new insights into the meaning of the experiments that I’m writing for publication.”
—Doug Templeton, Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology
—Ivana Stehlik, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology“JULS provides that place where [undergraduate students] can publish, even though it’s not a major piece of work that would get through in an international peer-reviewed journal. But still, it’s well done, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be presented, and [JULS] provides that avenue for the undergraduate student.”
—William MacKay, Department of Physiology“JULS is an excellent in-house journal of science. I think it is an invaluable resource for students to gain experience with writing up their results early. If the results of an experiment don’t get published, you may as well have not done the experiment to begin with. I think JULS actually has an equally important role, however, in publishing articles by professors to communicate with students about things they don’t learn in class.”
—William Navarre, Department of Molecular Genetics“I think of JULS in the context of research, and I’m very passionate about undergraduate research and giving undergraduates opportunities to do research. I think we do a pretty good job at U of T, but I think the word has to be out there that we can do a better job. And a lot of that is education, really. It’s explaining to professors how they can involve second-year undergrads, and how they can design projects so that second-year undergrads can do them.”
—Andrew Dicks, Department of Chemistry