The Write Stuff

A magazine produced by seniors in the neuroscience department shows off their ability to produce science writing for the masses.

Professor of Neuroscience Hewlet McFarlane with editions of Scientific Kenyon.

Professor of Neuroscience Hewlet McFarlane with editions of Scientific Kenyon.

When Dani Buch ’24 graduates on Saturday with degrees in neuroscience and studio art, she’ll be a recently published author, too — along with a dozen of her classmates.

Not only will a science magazine feature their articles — Buch wrote about the possible neuroprotective qualities of a mushroom called Lion’s Mane — but her original art will grace the cover.

It’s all the result of a year of hard work by seniors in the neuroscience department culminating in the publication of the glossy magazine Scientific Kenyon. Now in its eighth year, the printed periodical — which also appears online — represents a unique opportunity for students in the senior seminar to write science articles for public consumption and produce a magazine from scratch.

“I’ve wanted to do this since I was a freshman,” said Buch, a student from Utah who serves as art director for this year’s magazine. “It’s like my baby. It’s really cool to be a part of it and experience seeing all of these articles transition into something real for the public.”

Scientific Kenyon is the brainchild of Hewlet McFarlane, professor of neuroscience and vice president for enrollment and director of strategic programs and partnerships. He said the idea stems from a basic truth in today’s world.

“You have to be able to communicate why your science is important,” he said. 

That extends beyond writing up research in journals for colleagues or preparing grant proposals, aspects traditionally emphasized in an academic setting and long a part of Kenyon’s curriculum. A society where citizens increasingly vote on measures that require understanding complex scientific principles demands more, he said.

“As scientists, we really have to talk to the public,” he said. “It is the obligation of scientists to communicate in a way that everyone understands.”

So when the neuroscience faculty was preparing to become a department in 2012, McFarlane, who minored in creative writing as an undergraduate at Syracuse University, proposed adding writing for a public audience to the requirements. Now, as part of a senior seminar, students must write a National Science Foundation grant proposal — which at least one student has successfully gotten funded — and a Scientific American-style article on any topic that explains science to a general audience.  

“My instruction to them in class is always the same thing: Write it for your grandmother. Grandma cares deeply about what you’re doing. She doesn’t do neuroscience. Write this for her,” McFarlane said.

A couple of years after the requirement was added, McFarlane asked if students would collaborate with him outside of class to compile it all into an actual magazine — even though he had no experience in publishing.

“We’re all self-taught,” he said. “To be honest, I had no idea what I was taking on. We said, ‘Let’s make a magazine,’ and we did. We printed that magazine on campus using regular printers.”

Things have evolved considerably since those days. Today, a small production team of students work with McFarlane to do copy editing, fact checking and layout. An entire class session is devoted to library staff educating students about copyright issues. And the final product — 50 copies usually delivered to students, faculty and others the day before Commencement — is professionally printed and bound in Columbus.

Articles in the coming issue, each about 3,500 words in length, include “Easter Island’s Painkiller: How a Soil Bacteria Could Relieve Chronic Pain” and “Is Everybody in the Club Getting Tipsy? Alcohol’s Effects on Behavior and Cognition.”

Buch, whose article is titled “Ditching Magic for Memory: The New Mushroom in Town,” has taken the lead in laying out the articles and designing the magazine. But the most helpful result of participating in the project, she said, has been learning to better communicate the science behind her work without resorting to jargon and overly technical language.

“I love to talk about science to nonscientists, and learning how to do that has been really helpful,” she said. “Having the language now to not just share it with them but get them interested and wanting to learn more, that’s really cool.”

Yana Honcharuk ’24, a neuroscience major from Ukraine, said being part of the production team has been exciting. 

“This was a cool opportunity for the last semester of college to do something totally different that also had tangible results. In class, you write an essay and that’s it; here the work is actually going to be published and put online and you’d also have a physical copy.”

A Summer Science Scholar who will be starting work at Boston Children’s Hospital as a research assistant this summer, Honcharuk found the assignment of writing for a general audience to be a tough but rewarding one.

“I thought, I do not know how to write about this stuff without using the terminology I would normally use. How do you write an article that’s going to be interesting and not get bogged down in the details and not be boring — and not make people feel stupid?” she said. “It’s been fulfilling.”

It’s all part of a larger strategy at Kenyon to focus on writing across the curriculum.

“Writing is really important for all aspects of life,” McFarlane said. “It doesn’t matter what career path you think you’re on. At some point, you have to convert the thoughts and ideas in your head to words on a page or a website or whatever your medium is so that others can understand you.

“We take it very seriously in the science division,” he continued. “One cannot be successful in science without developing good writing skills.”

Chris Gillen, professor of biology and director of the College’s science and nature writing initiative, said projects like Scientific Kenyon make visible the deep and authentic sort of writing that is underway more broadly across the College.

“This kind of writing is in the air at Kenyon,” he said. “Our students in the sciences have had amazing experiences with academic writing but also creative writing or writing intended for broader audiences in other courses. They come to an assignment like this really ready for it, both with the skills they need and also with a real strong sense of appreciation of the importance of that sort of writing.”