An Interview with FieldNotes

Each year, only a fraction of all undergraduate research sees the light of day in what has been appropriately described as the “file-drawer effect.” Students dedicate incredible time and effort to complete a capstone or other required research project, but ultimately the results are rarely published in a scientific journal and therefore simply filed away and lost from sight. Last Spring Quarter, four undergraduate students from the College of the Environment set out to give the authors of this overlooked body of research a creative platform in which to share their work. Their solution was to launch the undergraduate-run journal, FieldNotes.

The first issue, released in Spring 2018, featured research articles on diverse topics, such as the relationship between beaver dams and salmon migration, community-driven pieces delving into the impacts of ocean acidification on Puget Sound oysters and the College of the Environment’s efforts to promote STEM-based initiatives in underrepresented communities. The articles were enhanced by the use of powerful student photography.

With the second edition of FieldNotes just released, we sat down with Rachel Fricke and Alanna Greene, two members of the founding editorial board, and Julian Olden, the faculty advisor for the new accompanying course (FISH 497), to discuss the journal’s origins, mission and future.

So, how did FieldNotes come about?

RF: About a year ago, we saw the need for a science communication opportunity for undergraduates. While there had been some initiatives in the College of the Environment to engage graduate students, faculty members and research staff in science communication, we didn’t feel there was a good outlet for undergraduate students to get involved. We really wanted to put together an integrative outreach platform with photographs as well as written pieces, so in Spring Quarter 2018, we sent out a wide call across the College to gather research stories for our first issue.

AG: This year, we revamped FieldNotes into a one-credit class: we meet once a week for about three hours on Thursdays, and the core 10 people in the class make up the editorial board and send out solicitations for research pieces. Because there are few opportunities for undergraduates to publish their research beside the capstone course and research symposium, we wanted to create a platform that gives undergrads the chance to contribute research in a way that gives them more flexibility and creativity.

JO: From a faculty perspective, what excites me the most is that, in many ways, undergrads are gaining experience at both the front and back of the “publication house.” In the front, undergrads often wonder, “how do I navigate going from scientific idea to actually writing a paper” and then to, “how do I publish my work.” At the back, as editors, they are handling the submissions and trying to run a successful journal. FieldNotes gives the students both perspectives. I think it also provides a new appreciation for the publication process; as an undergrad, it was very much a black-box to me.

How is the new FieldNotes class part of the process?

JO: This one-credit class is offered Fall and Spring quarters; during each quarter the class designs, creates and publishes an issue of FieldNotes. Students play a variety of roles, including as writers, editors, photographers, and publishers. The class helps to provide structure to the whole operation and gives new students the opportunity to shadow the current senior editors and learn the skills and processes needed to publish a successful undergraduate research journal.

Field Notes team group photo
Top row, left to right, Alanna Greene, Meghan Wirth, Mary Cappelletti, Ellen Ng, Max Podhaisky,
Bottom row, left to right, Michael Sanchez, Jonathan Huie, Andrew Chin, Rachel Cohen, Rachel Fricke

What has the response been to your first issue?

AG: The students have been very excited about getting involved. We’ve spoken to several  faculty members who are very interested and even initially surprised that we started this publication. I think having a concrete example of our work that we were able to put together in four months and publish established us as a credible undergraduate journal.

RF: For a College like ours, which educates a lot of undergrads who don’t necessarily want to go into research in the long-term, but do conduct a fair amount of research as part of their training, this is a great way for them to publish that work without going through the much longer process of submitting to a peer-reviewed journal—particularly if they don’t plan to continue in academia beyond their undergraduate career. I feel like we are filling a gap that the students had prior to our publication.

How do you go about selecting pieces to feature in FieldNotes?

AG: There’s a brief online application; students submit a 300- to 500-word abstract with a general idea of their research project. This year, our class went through all of these submissions together and tried to choose pieces that highlighted the different and diverse research areas of the whole College.

RF: This year, our editorial board is composed of people from different departments in the College, which wasn’t the case the last time around. So, it’s been a little easier to find pieces that come from different disciplines.

JO: It’s also a little different from a peer-review journal in the sense that the FieldNotes editorial board works with the author to help craft their message and better communicate the science.

How does FieldNotes stand out and capture a wider audience?

RF: Early on, we recognized that FieldNotes should include community-focused pieces and look at different entities throughout the Puget Sound region as well as provide the public with information about organizations on campus that haven’t really been communicated to the public. In our current issue, we have a feature piece on the move of the Burke Museum to its new building and how the museum is connected to the greater Seattle community. FieldNotes stories combine written and visual storytelling—a great way to integrate student photography. Some of the stories, like the Burke Museum story, provide student authors with the opportunity to tell the public about science outside of their own specific research studies.

AG: We believe it is important to have photography accompany the stories and to give students this creative outlet—on the website and in the journal. We wanted this journal to be accessible to the entire UW community—even those that aren’t research-oriented could look at FieldNotes and be engaged by its content. Photos are a great way of speaking to a larger audience and sharing the really cool aspects of everyone’s research and the community-focused features.

RF: Definitely! Our intention is to incorporate photos with all of our pieces. Especially the research pieces. Having integrated photo-based storytelling helps make these pretty complex subjects and methods a little more digestible for a lay audience.

Community Features Spring 2018
The Community Features section highlights important environmental issues from around the Puget Sound region, from Spring 2018

Have you seen any interest from other Colleges or Schools within the UW to start their own student-run journals?

RF:  There are other undergraduate journals that have similar, but not the same, models. One that comes to mind is Grey Matters, an undergraduate-run journal that uses student artwork as their alternative medium for communication. All of these undergraduate journals have come about from undergraduate work—they haven’t been put in place by faculty or departments. I think that’s a testament to the UW students who take the initiative to put these platforms in place. Truly grassroots.

JO: Truly grassroots. FieldNotes is purposefully looking to make sure its focus remains broad in terms of content, even within the College of the Environment itself. Obviously, there’s a rich diversity of topics to address.

AG: At the same time, we’ve had to remind ourselves that it’s okay to stay true to who we are as a journal, which is an undergraduate research journal within the College. There was some talk about trying to make it broader and connect with other entities within the UW, but our reason for starting this journal was to fill the gap within our College.

RF: Yeah, you really get into the weeds on what is your purpose as a journal. You need to realize that you’ve got limited resources and you have a limited number of people who are supporting you—so you have to find your niche and stick to that. Do the best you can within that niche and the role you’re trying to fill.

It’s refreshing to hear these sorts of discussions among the editors because they are the same exact battles that major journal publishers struggle with. You know, “how do they maintain a strong base but still trying to constantly evolve.” The FieldNotes process is a mesocosm of what every major journal battles with through its evolution.

Julian Olden

AG: I think it’s a good process to go through because it’s allowed us to maintain our autonomy—it was just a group of students running this journal. While future support would be awesome, it’s definitely been very rewarding watching this process unfold throughout the last couple of quarters and looking back and thinking, “we made this happen in a few months without a ton of outside help.”

So what’s next for FieldNotes?

AG: This year, we are also going to start doing more photo essays on the website. We see that as a good way to incorporate students from the College that don’t want to contribute a written piece, but who do have an interest or background in photography and photos they want to share.

RF: We also just started a blog series on the website–sort of a Q & A format.

AG: While making our website more interactive, we decided to start a blog series on students who go abroad and do research. Many students within the College go abroad and do cool research, but it doesn’t necessarily get highlighted. We figured the blog would be a good platform for people, again, who don’t necessarily have a full research piece they want to publish, but can be involved by answering a couple of questions about what they did abroad, why they did it and how it shaped their interests.

FieldNotes will be soliciting new article submissions for its Spring 2019 issue in early April 2019. If you are an undergraduate student interested in contributing to the journal as either a member of the editorial board or article author, please check out their website and contact the team at fieldnotesjourn@gmail.com.

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