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My Internship: Launching a Magazine

A Science Magazine at AU?
How A CatalystInternship Catapulted Science on Campus
by April Astor, Print Journalism ‘06

An Idea (and a Magazine) Are Born
I came to Washington DC for college because, like many students, I wanted to study politics, international relations and the media. I thought that Washington would be the center for all of these areas because it is the headquarters of The Washington Post as well as the three branches of government.

On campus, I would often hear about what was happening at the School of Public Affairs over in the Ward Building; at the School of Communication, on the third floor of Mary Graydon Center; and in the School of International Service. What was less often discussed was what was happening in Beeghly, McKinley, Hurst, Gray and Asbury – the science buildings. I wanted a campus publication completely devoted to covering the scientific achievements of AU students and professors. But was there really a demand for this sort of publication?

Physics Professor Nathan Harshman thought so. “There is such a focus on government and policy that we need a strong program at AU to further that mission in addition to the huge impact that science has on everyone’s life,” he said. “Because of these things, we need to make the presence of science larger here. I hope that the magazine will encourage recruitment of strong science students and retention of students in the science program.”

I took my idea to Dr. Cathy Schaeff, the chair of the Biology Department. Right away, she was enthusiastic. She introduced me to Dr. Susan Solarz and offered me office space to start my magazine.

The chairs of the five science departments, and the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS), had already recognized the need for more publicity for AU’s science programs; they had hired my supervisor, Dr. Solarz, for the express purpose of attracting more attention to the science departments. She does this by promoting events, trying to increase enrollment, and getting student research covered in the news.

After Dr. Schaeff and Dr. Solarz agreed to give me office space over the summer, I applied for a Federal Work Study position through the Biology Department and was awarded money to stay at AU over the summer and start up the magazine.

A Niche With Needs
The magazine was intended to address several needs, including increasing interest in AU’s science programs by prospective students and admits, increasing interest in AU’s science programs by alumni, increasing pride in AU science degrees, increasing alumni donations to the science programs, and encouraging non-science majors to take science classes as electives.

Lastly, we wanted to draw the attention of AU’s leadership to the amazing work that is often overlooked in the university’s five science departments.

We decided to draw on images and references to popular culture to open up the science world to the general public. The primary way this was done was to model the front cover shot after a famous scene from the movie Reservoir Dogs.

The “Lets Go to Work” shot was emulated by science faculty and students in the same poses as the actors in the movie, but with lab coats instead of dark suits. We decided that we would reference a pop-culture movie with each of our cover shots. Our method seems to have worked on freshman biology major, Patrick Sullivan. “I like how the cover looked like Reservoir Dogs,” he said. “And it’s good to learn about what the science professors at AU are up to.”

The next step was to actually create the product. Dr. Solarz and I had to agree on such things as whether a magazine would indeed be the best format for this publication, as opposed to a newsletter or Web site. I convinced her that an attractive, tangible publication distributed to students would encourage readership and a fan base. We also decided on the sections that would go into the magazine each issue.

The Heart of the Issue
For the first issue of the magazine, we hoped that the CAS Dean, Kay Mussell, would provide not only give her approval but also an inaugural editorial about why science should matter to everyone, even people who do not study science or pursue it as a career. The magazine would include five sections:

  • Science Stars would feature stories about students from the five science departments: Mathematics/Statistics, Biology/Environmental Studies, Psychology, Chemistry, and CAP (computer science, audio technology and physics). Each issue would feature two students per department and the stories would focus on a research project that the student was currently working on or had recently completed.
  • Professor Profiles would feature two faculty members each issue and discuss their current research interests and projects.
  • Where Are They Now would provide contact information and career updates about AU alumni who had graduated with science degrees. This would hopefully inspire students and show them what former AU students were able to do with their science degrees.
  • Getting Out of Dodge would contain a longer story, similar to one that would appear in the Science Stars section, but it would profile an AU student who had done science research or a science-related internship outside of the DC area.
  • Piping Hot would serve as a resource for readers to look at currently available science-related jobs, internships, and scholarships. We also included a listing of helpful science-oriented Web sites I obtained from the AU Career Center.
  • Finally, the Events Calendar would offer listings of science-related events on campus, mostly events planned by the five science departments. Our goal was to increase student and alumni attendance and draw AU’s science community closer together. We also created a listserv to supplement the calendar and advertise for events that may not have been planned at the time of publication. The calendar page would also include a list of “featured classes” – interesting courses that we hoped would encourage students to take more science courses, or perhaps even their first.

Staffing: A Step in the Right Direction
In order for these sections to become a reality, however, I had to secure a writing staff. Having served as president of the university chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, I knew that announcing opportunities over the SOC listserv was a good way to elicit responses from students.

Several students responded to my request for help, writing articles over the summer for the inaugural fall issue. Dr. Solarz and I met with professors and each of the department chairs to discover which students were doing research over the summer or had completed a project the pervious semester. We created a list of story ideas and assigned them to the writers.

I would write some of those stories, in addition to preparing the Piping Hot, Calendar, and Where Are They Now sections and editing the stories written by other students. Dr. Solarz and I had numerous meetings and put together a budget and proposal. As a result of strong presentations to the university deans, we were able to secure our funding for the magazine. Even though our magazine was approved, we still had to pay close attention to our plan for evaluating success.

This would include measuring subsequent donations to the sciences; measuring increased attendance at advertised events and at featured classes; and measuring feedback and responses to an online survey we created with a drawing for free movie tickets as an incentive to readers.

Measuring Success
Although a large number of students and faculty were pleased with the magazine—especially how it drew attention to research--fewer people than we anticipated responded to our survey.

This was a difficult situation because I understood that a low response rate to the survey didn’t mean that students weren’t enjoying the magazine. I tried to devise a plan to increase the number of people filling out our survey by creating a section called Science Issues: You Decide.

This section would provide both sides of a current controversial topic in the sciences and then ask readers for their opinions with the results to be published in the next issue. The reader would be instructed to vote online for his/her position and their name would be entered into a drawing for a gift certificate to the movies. After participating in the opinion poll, the reader would then be asked to complete the survey.

I also increased the number of gift certificate winners from one to several so that the winners’ word-of-mouth would encourage their friends to fill out the survey after the next issue. Lab Lessons and Life Lessons Learned

Creating and working on this magazine has taught me lots of valuable things for my career. I think that I have learned to write better about science by having the experience of writing science stories, myself, and by seeing some of the excellent stories my writers have produced. I also learned how to survive in an office setting, something that was new for me since I had always worked in the food industry. With Dr. Solarz’ help, I learned that it is important not to take things personally. I also learned to take charge and, with Dr. Solarz’s approval, I became responsible for handling all communications with University Publications.

I am looking forward to continuing Catalyst, to working with Dr. Solarz and to learning more. This summer, I will train my replacement so that she will be working while I am still here to help her and make sure she will be able to handle the responsibility. I am hopeful that, because of a position I created, other students will be able to gain valuable experience and insight into writing, particularly science writing, and also about the workplace.