SBU student-run science journal expands, engages Long Island high school students

ujala_dar_-_original_graphic_1_0.png The next edition of the Stony Brook Young Investigators Review will be twice as large as usual when the student-run, peer-reviewed journal comes out this fall.

Every semester, the journal is filled with well written, accurate articles about recent research happening at Stony Brook and in the wider scientific community. This semester, the pieces by SBU students will appear alongside the winning pieces from a summer writing competition for high school students run by SBYIR members.

“Once COVID took hold and schools shut down, research opportunities available through local and regional science competitions were cancelled, and there was a void in terms of science opportunities for students,” said Stephanie Budhan, a senior chemistry major from Smithtown, and the organization’s editor in chief. “But even before, there has always been a general disconnect between science and public policy.

“We thought this competition could serve as an accessible academic challenge to encourage students to address societal controversies. We wanted to help them think outside the box, to think about scientific controversies in different ways.”

This will be the first time the Stony Brook Young Investigator Review journal will include pieces written by students from outside of the university.

“When COVID-19 changed our organization’s ability to function as usual, our student leaders were committed to thinking creatively about how they may continue to share science,” said Nicole Leavey, a faculty member at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science and SBYIR’s advisor. “They found a way during an incredibly challenging time and I couldn’t be more proud of them. This competition served our organization’s greater mission, provided an outlet for young people interested in science and science communication, and was so powerful that we now plan to offer it annually. This group of students inspires me and makes me hopeful for the next generation of science communicators.”

The Stony Brook Young Investigator Review for several years focused on showcasing exciting scientific research through a speaker series. In recent years, the organization’s executive board has worked to expand its activities, including creating and steadily improving the journal and including a growing range of academic disciplines. The journal has been in existence for more than a decade, publishing reviews researched and written by undergraduate students.

“We have a mission of bringing science to the public,” said Priya Aggarwal, a human evolutionary biology major from Levittown and the head of the SBYIR cabinet. "We’ve gone beyond just a text-based journal. We now have graphics editors who create custom graphics to illustrate the science behind each article. We are building engagement events and ways to bring science to the public.”

With support from the Division of Student Affairs, Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities and the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, SBYIR members contacted libraries, public schools, and private schools across Long Island in the late spring semester to engage students from all backgrounds. More than 120 students from 34 schools submitted papers in response to prompts about the intersections of science and society.

“There’s a need to think about controversies from different perspectives,“ said Aggarwal. “Scientists think about solutions from a textbook perspective For instance, they might say, 'climate change is a problem made worse by the use of oil, but solar power can provide the same amount of energy without exacerbating the issue.' So a scientist will argue that solar power is a wonderful solution, but others will focus on the costs of switching and argue that it’s not powerful enough to sustain society.

“We wanted these students to consider how we balance what’s important for society and what’s important for the world.”

Before the competition started, a team of SBYIR members came up with a series of prompts about balancing scientific research with ethics and societal needs across several disciplines: the use of experimental medical treatments; the impact of so-called neutral algorithms on levels of mass incarceration; and the impacts of extracting resources for electronics manufacturing.

A dozen SBU students served as judges to review all of the submissions in an anonymous and scientifically rigorous process that took six weeks over the summer.

To honor the high school students across grade levels and submission categories, the group recognized 17 quarterfinalists, 12 semifinalists, and six finalists. Many of the participants - even those who didn’t receive an award or honorable mention - reached out to the organization, and received constructive feedback on their papers for next time.

“When the schools shut down, we saw through our siblings how students lost connections with their teachers and their friends. It's hard to connect through a screen, especially for high school students,” said Budhan. “We intended to give them more than something they could put on their resume - we wanted to uplift as many students as possible to elevate them while giving them this opportunity to be more involved in the sciences.”

Graphic courtesy of Stony Brook Young Investigators Review, created by Ujala Dar