Kiran Musunuru, MD, Ph.D, MPH
Assistant Professor of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology
I wouldn’t be where I am today if it hadn’t been for an undergraduate research journal.
No exaggeration. Some 18 years ago, when I was a Harvard undergraduate, I was part of a group of students who worked to launch the Journal of Undergraduate Sciences. Under the guidance of a highly motivated graduate student, Paul Ma, who had been working with instructors of introductory chemistry and biology classes to introduce more open-ended laboratory exercises, we had perceived the need for a forum in which undergraduates (and even high school students) could share the results of their research with each other, whether short-term projects done in introductory courses or senior theses. Thus the Journal of Undergraduate Sciences was born, and as science concentrators we focused our efforts on soliciting the best of undergraduate research in the natural sciences (leaving the social sciences and humanities to those more qualified to tackle those disciplines). As best we could, we fully replicated the structure of a “grown-up” journal, with an editorial board, expert reviewers in each scientific discipline (typically but not always faculty members), a rigorous review process, and a publication of professional quality that was distributed to both the Harvard community as well as paying subscribers.
Although I had already started working in a laboratory, as many premedical students do, it was my experiences with the Journal of Undergraduate Sciences that really turned me on to research. Most students at Harvard become involved in research of some sort or another but only experience the first stage of the work—the experimental work at the bench, the data analysis, the literature review—and don’t see the subsequent stages that entail writing up a manuscript, submitting it to a journal, going toe-to-toe with demanding reviewers, often losing and having the manuscript be rejected, revising the manuscript, resubmitting it, appealing to the editors, etc., etc., and hopefully, months or even years later, celebrating when the manuscript is accepted for publication and finally seeing the fruits of one’s labor on the printed page. And few see the research process from the publisher’s perspective—seeking out high-quality work, shepherding it through the review process, recruiting the best possible reviewers, and rushing to meet publication deadlines. From any perspective, it’s exhausting but ultimately rewarding.
As an editor of (and contributor to) the Journal of Undergraduate Sciences, I got to experience the entire process from beginning to end and to learn what cutting-edge (and rigorously evaluated) research in every scientific discipline looks like, in all its forms and flavors. Naturally, as part of the job I frequently looked to journals like Science, Nature, and Cell for guidance, and so inevitably was exposed to some of the most high-quality research being done worldwide. I had my “aha!” moment when reading a particularly elegant paper in Cell and thinking “wow, I really wish I could be part of something like this….” That moment more than anything else crystallized my desire to go to graduate school. I was by no means a stellar student with respect to academics, but through my work with the Journal of Undergraduate Sciences I became passionately devoted to scientific research, and almost two decades later I’m now running a laboratory of my own at my alma mater.
Both when I was an undergraduate and, now, as an assistant professor, it has been my impression that the real strength of Harvard is not its 375 years of historical perspective, its outsized reputation, its large endowment, its classroom and curricular innovations, or even its extraordinary student body—rather, it is the unparalleled opportunity for students to “learn by doing,” to expand human knowledge, to become directly involved in the very best research under the direction of world-class faculty. Whether the research involves using stem cells to regenerate heart muscle or studying the examination of aesthetic experience and free will in nineteenth century novels, one can do something far more meaningful and relevant to our society than answering problem sets, writing essays, or completing exercises in the classroom. If you are a Harvard undergraduate, I urge you: take full advantage of this wonderful place where you’ve come to study, and become involved in research while you are here! And the natural extension of that sentiment: find ways to share your best work with your peers and with the community, so that we are all enriched by it, whether it is through poster sessions, seminar series, or undergraduate research journals.
I’m sorry to say that the Journal of Undergraduate Sciences is no more. It ceased publishing new issues a few years after I graduated, despite our efforts to train a dedicated team of younger students who would carry the torch forward and in turn train their own successors. The sad truth is that organizations are born, and organizations die. But the need for a forum in which undergraduates can share their work will always exist, and so it is gratifying for me to see that others have taken up the challenge, and that THURJ has emerged as the tentpole publication for undergraduate research at Harvard and has been going strong for five years, with no signs of stopping any time soon. The challenge will be to maintain the high standards of excellence promoted by THURJ for generations of students to come. So I urge all who are committed to the cause of undergraduate education to support THURJ’s mission.