The Entrepreneurial Science Journalist

Author:   Justin Chakma

The next logical step to take after honing your communication skills and becoming a successful science journalist might be to operate or even start up your own science journal or magazine (such as JYI). Why let the fruits of your science journalistic expertise go unsown, and the opportunity to lead whizz by? Leading an organization devoted to communicating scientific knowledge can be one of the most rewarding experiences you can have as an undergraduate.

The Case for Undergraduate Science Publications

You might ask what purpose undergraduate science journals and magazines serve given the plethora of professional publications that already exist. There are several answers to that question.

First, the majority of these publications are geared towards the general public or towards specialists. Science undergraduates are intermediaries in terms of their interest and depth of scientific knowledge. Even if professional publications or resources did exist that bridged that intermediate-level of interest and knowledge-level, we can take the argument one step further.

One of the primary motivations behind the tedium of writing laboratory reports for classes is to consolidate your understanding by forcing cogent communication of those ideas. While reading scientific literature and materials is essential to expanding your vocabulary and knowledge of concepts, according to former Harvard President Larry Summers, it is only when we are forced to synthesize and write down our ideas do we truly understand them. Undergraduate journals and magazines centered around the sciences facilitate this consolidation of knowledge in an area of intellectual interest specific to the student, in addition to obviously honing one's writing and communication skills.

As a result, the type of intellectual exploration made possible by participating in an undergraduate publication is unlimited and can profoundly shape a student's career pathway as described in my previous column. These independent explorations are important given the varying level of support and resources available at the career centers of post-secondary institutions. Even at institutions with well-established support systems, the depth with which they can provide career advice for niche fields such as venture capital, or theoretical physics, is limited.

Finally, as a student-driven resource written by students for students, undergraduate science journals and magazines present no conflicts of interest. This makes it significantly easier for them to secure relevant information and sources, and moreover provide accurate, balanced information in a readily accessible location not shaped by industry or a corporate agenda. Science journalists can disseminate the findings of their own independent explorations with other undergraduate students.

Leadership Opportunities

So undergraduate journals and magazines don't exist merely for purpose of padding resumes with "leadership" experience at the undergraduate level. Developed properly with a defined vision and purpose, they can create a tangible impact on other students, which to many of us, is the most rewarding feeling in the world. I encourage undergraduate students to rise to the occasion and seek leadership opportunities at existing publications on their campus, JYI or even to start-up your own organization focusing on your niche area of science. In my next column, I'll draw on anecdotes from both my experience here at the JYI and my role in founding BioSynergy, an international magazine for entrepreneurship in the life sciences, to provide a step by step guide to how you can identify your leadership niche, and possibly even start your own publication.

Finally, one obvious question that comes to mind might be: Why would JYI support the creation of science journals or magazines that compete with it at the undergraduate level? Our mission is to hone scientific communication skills, an excitement for science and provide leadership and career development opportunities for your staff. Since JYI takes the entire realm of science to be part of its journalistic mandate, recruits and supports only undergraduate students and can only accept the very top peer-reviewed articles, there are necessarily gaps in the variety of content that JYI can produce. If we inspire science journalists to create new forums for communicating science in areas of their own specialized or local interests that extends JYI's impact. We'd love to be able to say: "80% of Editor in Chief's at major undergraduate institutional journals are alumni of JYI, or that JYI alumni have started undergraduate science journals/magazines at 9 different campuses." That's real impact, and we want you as JYI staff to be the ones making that impact.