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MCO students involved with JEI: (l to r) Olga Minkina, Haneui Bae, Jamilla Akhund-Zade, Olivia Ho-Shing, David Tomasek, Alexandra (Sandy) Mattei

Like so many first-year graduate students, Jamilla Akhund-Zade (now a second-year student in Ben de Bivort’s lab) was persuaded to go to a presentation by the promise of free food. Little did she know that just one year later she would find herself directing the organization that provided the pizza that afternoon: the Journal of Emerging Investigators (JEI). “I was looking for a way to get involved with outreach events, and the JEI struck me as a very empowering organization,” she says. The JEI is an online, open-access journal founded and run by Harvard graduate students that publishes original scientific research written by middle and high school students. “I remember thinking about how great it would have been for me to have the JEI when I was in high school; how neat it would have been for my teacher to send the results of an experiment we had done to a real journal and see it published,” says Akhund-Zade. Olivia Ho-Shing, now a fifth-year student in Catherine Dulac’s lab, had a similar reaction when she discovered the JEI early in her graduate school career. “Middle- and high-schoolers are at an age where they are still appreciative of and fascinated by questions, and they’re starting to learn how to methodically investigate those questions to find answers. The JEI seemed like a fun way to help students work through something they’re fascinated by and encourage them to pursue it as far as they can, which is ultimately what science is all about,” she says. Akhund-Zade and Ho-Shing, both of whom are in the MCB’s Molecules, Cells, and Organisms (MCO) training program, met as  editors at the JEI, and the two have just been named co-editors-in-chief; essentially, they’re now running the show.

The JEI was created by a group of graduate students at Harvard Medical School in 2010 after they read an article about Blackawton bees that had been written by a class of third-graders and published in the journal Biology Letters. The Harvard students were inspired to provide an outlet to help more young people learn about how science is actually done by going through the full process of experiment design, data collection, paper writing, and publishing. “It’s a fully peer-reviewed journal. Each submitted paper goes through a pre-approval check to make sure it investigates a valid scientific question, and is then assigned a primary and secondary editor from JEI staff,” explains Akhund-Zade. The editors then choose an expert reviewer with a graduate degree in a relevant field to provide comments about the manuscript to its authors, who  revise and resubmit the paper until it is deemed acceptable by the editors and then the editors-in-chief. After that, papers go through copy editing and layout design steps before ultimately being published on JEI’s website.

The JEI has grown from eight published papers in 2012 to 27 in 2015, and is currently looking to bring on more editors to help meet the growing interest from students across the world. “Some science teachers are really enthusiastic about the program, and we’ll get 20 or 30 manuscripts from one class,” Ho-Shing laughs. The JEI got a big publicity boost in 2014 when one of its published articles made national news: fourteen-year-old Suvir Mirchandani performed a study of how much ink is used by different types of printed font and determined that the US federal and state governments could save a cumulative $200-300 million per year by switching to a more efficient font on all their printed documents. The total number of papers submitted to the JEI has since ballooned to ~250 per year.

Most papers don’t have a high level of scientific sophistication, but Akhund-Zade says that’s expected of grade-school students. “No one is expecting them to come up with incredibly complex experiments; in fact, often the students don’t have access to advanced lab equipment. The real thing we want to help them work on is how to present their data in the clearest way possible, how scientific manuscripts are structured, and what constitutes a good experimental design. Sometimes we ask the submitters to think of and perform a better control experiment to get more accurate results, then resubmit their manuscripts.” For high-school students, submitting papers to the JEI can even help lead to opportunities in college; Ho-Shing remembers a reviewer being so impressed by a sixth-grader’s paper about muscle physiology that he offered to network with the student if they were interested in pursuing science as a career.

As the new editors-in-chief, Akhund-Zade and Ho-Shing are responsible for reviewing all approved papers at a high level for accuracy and quality, and are working on developing the JEI’s local outreach arm, which will match students at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School with mentors from the JEI to work on experimental design projects. Ho-Shing served as one of the JEI’s publishing editors before accepting this new role, and her previous position is being taken over by another MCO graduate student, Haneui Bae, a third-year in Takao Hensch’s lab. Bae was drawn to the JEI because as a high school student in South Korea, “I was interested in science but I didn’t have a lot of resources. The only thing I had to work with was my textbook, which was full of facts but wasn’t really an accurate representation of what science is, which is asking questions and designing an experiment to find an unknown answer. Even in schools that have science labs, the questions they give the students are ones that have a known answer, and the students are just trying to re-find the right answer. That’s different from trying to investigate something on your own, and the JEI exists to help students shift into a real, scientific mindset.”

All three graduate students say that working with the JEI has helped them in their own careers, too. “Working as an editor and translating an academic reviewer’s comments into language that a high-schooler can comprehend really helped me to understand what each manuscript is really about – it was like having a mini-revelation with each paper,” says Akhund-Zade. Ho-Shing learned to use InDesign during her role as publishing editor, and adds that looking at so many different manuscripts “helps you understand how to write a cohesive story, because as a grad student you can get so bogged down with your specific, technical question that you lose sight of what exactly it is you’re trying to learn. Helping others with their manuscripts has taught me more about how to approach my own science.”