January 30, 2012

Undergrads Write, Publish Research Journal

Explorations” looks a lot like many other scholarly research journals. What makes it different is that all of its articles are written by students at Texas A&M University.

While Texas A&M has a large graduate program — with almost 10,000 students studying for master’s or doctoral degrees and many often appearing as  co-authors for articles representing significant findings — all  the articles in “Explorations “are written by undergraduates. The articles are based on their own research, many through specialized honors courses overseen by senior faculty. The profiles on the publication’s closing pages show most of the authors to be juniors and seniors, along with a few sophomores and one freshman.

Explorations

The current issue of "Explorations" features research on climate change, forensic engineering, cancer research and more.

Topics in the current 74-page issue range from  “Climate Change: Looking for Answers in Forest Soil“ to “Advancing Cancer Research Through Canine Osteosarcoma” to “National Economic Development and Conflict Behavior: Lessons for Syria” to “Net Neutrality in the 21st Century” and “Applying Forensic Engineering to the Construction Industry.” Then there’s the one titled “Preventing Tube Failure in a Nuclear Reactor” and another that poses the question: “Can Home Environment Impact Infants’ Motor Development?”

Typical of the student authors represented in the current issue — to the extent of the nearly 50,000 students at Texas A&M are typical — is Justin Whisenant, who wrote the climate change article featured on the cover. He is a senior with double majors in forest management and spatial science. He says he became interested in the forest ecosystem when he lived in Alaska for two years. After graduation, he says he hopes to work for the U.S. Forest Service, explaining he believes it is “one of America’s key players in working toward sustainable natural resource management.”

In one sense, “Explorations” is the ultimate student publication in that it is partially underwritten by The Association of Former Students, Texas A&M’s 400,000-member alumni organization, which provides support for numerous university activities, many of which involve student enrichment programs.

“The Association is proud to provide funding for student initiatives, such as ‘Explorations,’ which showcase the excellence of a Texas A&M education,” notes Kathryn Greenwade, the alumni organization’s vice president for communications. “The gifts of our generous donors ensure that worthwhile endeavors that shine a positive light on our students will continue despite cuts in other funding. The outstanding work highlighted in this publication makes us all proud of our undergraduates and provides a sense of optimism about what these young men and women will achieve in the future. “

The 18 scientific, technical or scholarly articles in the journal were selected on the basis of an arduous review process, notes Dr. Suma Datta, executive director for Texas  A&M’s Honors and Undergraduate Research Program and associate professor of biochemistry and biophysics. Each article had to pass muster with a nine-member student editorial board and, separately, a bevy of demanding faculty reviewers, most of whom hold doctoral degrees and are highly respected in their professional fields.

Many submitted articles didn’t make the cut for various reasons — but they still provided valuable research and writing experiences for the students who prepared them, Datta points out, adding that those students are encouraged to keep researching and try again for a future issue.

It started with a small exploratory committee of faculty four years ago who envisioned an undergraduate-led publication that would be more inclusive than previous, more narrowly-focused publications such as the Undergraduate Journal of Research. A broader focus was necessary  “to provide the many students at Texas A&M who were engaged in undergraduate research a forum to publicly display the exceptional student work that is being done on campus every year,” according to Datta, who became chair of the committee when she joined the administration at Texas A&M three years ago.

“We envisioned a publication that would represent all areas of scholarly work on campus, from the laboratory to the world outside and from deliberate experiments to acts of creation,” Datta adds.

She says this third volume of “Explorations” certainly meets those aspirations.

An early supporter for the more comprehensive student-led journal: Dr. Elizabeth Tebeaux, professor of English, member of the publication’s faculty-staff advisory board and one of the faculty reviewers.

“As a development tool, ‘Explorations’ requires students to understand that knowledge cannot exist unless it is communicated,” emphasizes Tebeaux, who teaches technical communications and says she appreciates the need to communicate broadly.

“’Explorations’ should be a testimony to the high quality of thought and writing that a land-grant institution like Texas A&M seeks to develop  in its undergraduate researchers,”  she adds.

Similar sentiments are expressed by Dr. Lawrence Griffing, former chair of the exploratory committee, associate professor of biology and, like Datta and Tebeaux, a member of the advisory board and a faculty reviewer.

“Undergraduates should have the opportunity to explain their work in a venue that can be disseminated and referenced,” Griffing observes. “’Explorations’ has the potential to grow beyond Aggieland and become a publication paradigm in undergraduate education and scholarship for our nation and the world beyond.”

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Media contact: Lane Stephenson, News & Information Services at (979) 845-4662

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