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Undergrads Launch Science Blog

Led by biological sciences major Sarah Waliany of USC Dornsife, undergraduates start an online science magazine and fill a crucial niche largely ignored by mainstream media.

By Pamela J. Johnson
June 2, 2011

When Sarah Waliany of USC Dornsife discovered there was no online science magazine for undergraduates on campus, she started one herself. The lead story in <em>USCience Review</em> she is displaying discusses mercury in dental amalgam fillings. Photo by Pamela J. Johnson.

When Sarah Waliany of USC Dornsife discovered there was no online science magazine for undergraduates on campus, she started one herself. The lead story in USCience Review she is displaying discusses mercury in dental amalgam fillings. Photo by Pamela J. Johnson.

A group of ingenious USC undergraduates aren’t waiting for that golden opportunity to publish their science articles.

They have created their own online science magazine, USCience Review, and are regularly posting stories they have authored. Their reporting tackles issues and phenomena from the controversial use of mercury in dental amalgam fillings to experiencing a déjà vu moment to the March nuclear accidents in Japan following a devastating earthquake and tsunami.

The articles discuss the science behind a plethora of topics — some elaborate on science-related news stories making headlines across the world.

“When I arrived at USC, I wanted to join a science magazine for undergraduates because I really enjoy writing science articles,” said Sarah Waliany, a biological sciences major and Spanish minor in USC Dornsife entering her junior year in the Fall. “I was surprised to find there wasn’t one. So I decided to start one up myself.”

Waliany is editor-in-chief of USCience Review. There are five other editors and seven reporters. The quality control is high and each article undergoes a rigorous editing process. Most of the unpaid staff members are undergraduates from USC Dornsife studying biological sciences like Waliany or neuroscience or biochemistry. But others are majoring in health promotion at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, or electrical or biomedical engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

The journal’s faculty adviser is Nelson Eugene Bickers.

“The USCience Review is a terrific example of students’ initiative and talents,” said Bickers, vice provost for undergraduate programs and professor of physics and astronomy in USC Dornsife. “The Review is the result of Sarah Waliany's vision — she conceived the idea and put it into action. Our office just provided some advice and moral support along the way.”

Bickers noted that the Review fills a niche absent in the mainstream media. The undergraduates make science accessible to all readers. They explain the science behind events and phenomena in a clear manner.

“Sarah and the other editors have done a remarkable job of making difficult science concepts approachable for the educated lay reader,” Bickers said. “They’ve written on a fascinating range of topics, and I can't wait to see their next issue.”

USCience Review launched in April with Volume 1, Issue 1. They plan to produce four issues each year but between issues they will update with new major articles and what they call “mini-insights” or shorter pieces. All packages include graphics and/or photographs. In all, they plan to post about 20 articles and 20 “mini-insights” per year.

Although they have not yet advertized, their first issue evoked a letter of thanks from Mercury Exposure, a Web site offering news about dental mercury amalgam dangers. The group was impressed with the quality of the piece.

“We want to extend a huge thank you to Victoria Saadat for her recent article covering the dental mercury amalgam filling issue,” the group said of Saadat who is majoring in electrical engineering at USC Viterbi. “She brought up the science that most mainstream journalists never bother to mention.”

“That was really very exciting for me,” Waliany said of the positive response. “That was exactly my goal — to be able to explain the science behind different topics that are relevant in our everyday lives, the science that’s not as well known as it should be.”

Most of the ideas come from the reporters who want to write about topics they are learning in class, or any subject that intrigues them. The site’s stated mission is to “increase awareness of recent advances and discoveries and to elucidate the scientific phenomena that play a role in a broad spectrum of fields, including medicine, biological sciences, environmental sciences and others.”

“It’s a blog that both scientists and nonscientists can really enjoy and understand,” Waliany said. “We’re explaining the different scientific mechanisms behind phenomena we encounter every day — phenomena like déjà vu that we don’t usually stop and wonder, “what’s the science behind that?’ ”

Waliany enjoys this kind of journalistic work and considered becoming a science writer — for about a second.

“I really want to become a doctor,” she said, specifically an oncologist. “But I’ve decided that when I become a doctor I want to join the editorial board of a medical journal — the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

“I also want to do clinical research. Physicians involved in research have to continue to publish their work. So even though it’s a different type of writing, not about general topics but more about the research, I will still be writing and I’ll still be honing my writing skills.”

Read the latest issue of USCience Review.