Lift-off for JEMI+ – an international undergraduate journal

By David Oliver

In 2001, UBC spearheaded a new type of laboratory course. The vision was to create an educational experience that would immerse undergraduates in research – students would learn by doing real science!

The course was structured around ongoing projects. Each term student teams would develop an independent research question, draft a proposal, and conduct experiments in the laboratory. At the end of the course their results would be documented as a scientific manuscript and published in a course-based journal titled ‘Journal of Experimental Microbiology and Immunology’ (JEMI). Over the next ten years, 18 volumes of JEMI resulted.

In 2014, Professor William (Bill) Ramey (the course’s pioneer) retired, and I was hired as his replacement. I began learning about course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs). Auchincloss et al. (2014) suggest that an effective laboratory research experience should integrate opportunities to practice science, experience the process of discovery, to do meaningful work that has real-world impact, to collaborate, and to build off previous science. In our CURE, students work in teams to develop research questions based primarily on data and observations reported in JEMI. The projects are novel, the outcome is unknown, the data is new, and the conclusions are scientifically meaningful. Sometimes teams interact with other researchers on campus. Learning is facilitated by the instructors rather than directed. Unlike traditional labs, students aren’t given recipes to follow. Students often note that the transition into doing independent research is challenging but with teamwork, some guidance, reassurance, and patience they collectively succeed.

The course is scaffolded around several writing assignments that serve as developmental guideposts and project milestones. Students write an individual proposal, a team-based proposal, a draft manuscript, and finally submit a revised manuscript. Each assignment represents an opportunity for our teaching team to provide feedback on writing. Editing the early assignments sometimes requires significant attention but over the term we see marked improvement. This development is likely attributed to our feedback as well as our students’ growing engagement with writing and technical familiarity with their research area.

Over the first few months I had an opportunity to be mentored by Bill. During our discussions we had the idea of expanding JEMI, perhaps to include reviewers or even authors from outside of UBC. Could we engage the world? Could we enhance the experience even further for UBC undergraduate students?

With more thought the idea of an international version of JEMI emerged. The goal was to create a top-tier undergraduate journal for the publication of original research articles in the fields of microbiology and immunology. Moreover, the new journal would include a peer review process, which would draw on the expertise of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows around the world. In addition to great science, this new journal would be a cross-cutting educational forum where students at the undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctoral levels would engage activities related to scientific writing, communication and publication. With the support of Dr. Mike Gold (head of our department) and a UBC Science Centre for Learning and Teaching (SCLT) grant, we launched what is now JEMI+.

Over the past few months, JEMI+ has taken shape. Doctoral candidate Kirstin Brown is heading the editorial team and our first few papers are working their way through the peer review process. At the end of 2015, the first JEMI+ paper was published online. This paper has caught the interest of up-and-coming undergraduates hoping to add a peer-reviewed publication to their CV.

JEMI+ has broad teaching and learning potential. Undergraduate students can share their research – and their writing – on the world stage, the international community is invited to participate, and the science has real value. Graduate student and post-doctoral fellows are keen to participate. Our initial rounds of peer review have been fair, thorough, constructive, and realistic.

At this early stage, it’s already clear that many of our undergraduate students understand the value of a peer-reviewed publication in terms of career advancement. However, it’s also becoming apparent JEMI publications are a meaningful source of personal pride, which in turn may contribute to building a sense of self-efficacy in young scientists. Further, the involvement of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows provides opportunities for scientific mentorship and teaching.

** ScWRL editors: We look forward to sharing David’s experiences and insights through this blog as JEMI+ continues to grow, and as more and more students benefit from its research-based and writing-focused rationale. **  

About David Oliver

Dave Oliver

Dr. David Oliver is a faculty member in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at University British Columbia.

Dave provides Course-Based Undergraduate Experiences at the fourth year undergraduate level. He is also Editor-in-Chief of JEMI and JEMI+.