News & Media

News and Media

News and Media

Students Indulge Their Love of Science With a Biannual Journal

Dec. 19, 2012

By Erich Burnett

Synaptic verve: Editors Veronica Burnham, Francis Lawrence, and Lizzie Roberts (from left)

In an age of digital media, the printed word still finds welcome refuge in Oberlin. From the campus’ student newspapers to its literary publications, old-fashioned paper still holds a place of power across campus.

Veronica Burnham stepped into these fertile climes in the fall of 2010, a first-year student pursuing the somewhat unconventionally paired disciplines of neuroscience and cinema studies.

It was in high school that she cultivated a passion for science, and she reveled in her summer job at a chemistry lab near her hometown of Mahopac, New York. A voracious reader, Burnham would devote her downtime to devouring dog-eared issues of Discover and denser academic journals. On campus, she soon found herself making friends through conversations about science; much to her surprise, they didn’t tune her out.

By the time Burnham was winding down her first year on campus, a new path began to emerge. Inspired by a journalism seminar on campus and an environmentalist expo in Washington, D.C., she came upon the means through which she could make a difference: by writing about science in terms everyone could relate to.

“I’ve always been one of those people who likes to try new things, but I’m always timid about taking that first step,” says Burnham, whose first venture in science journalism consisted of reporting on events for the Review. It wasn’t breaking news, but it was a start.

At about the same time, she met fellow neuroscience major Francis Lawrence, who shared her interest in scientific writing and her frustration over the lack of outlets to create it. They swapped dreams of starting their own magazine, and Burnham said they ought to follow up on it sometime.

“I said, ‘No, let’s actually do it,’” remembers Lawrence, a junior from suburban Chicago. “‘Let’s meet next week and talk about what the first steps are.’”

Each of them spoke with an advisor about launching a science publication—and within weeks, another student, Lizzie Roberts, did the same. Together, the three pooled their vision to produce the Synapse, a twice-annual compendium of features and research from around the world and around Oberlin. Before the fall 2011 semester was through, the first issue had landed, with Burnham and Lawrence listed as coeditors-in-chief and Roberts serving as all-in-one treasurer, staff writer, and managing editor.

“The research happening in this institution is so cool, but it’s so difficult to understand it in the ways it’s typically presented,” says Roberts, a senior creative writing major from New York City. “I love science, but I don’t think it has to be so dense. Everyone should have that chance to see science at Oberlin as interesting.”

Named for the point through which impulses pass between neurons, the Synapse emphasizes subjects across the scientific spectrum. Each issue features a mix of international news, research at Oberlin, and explanations of everyday science—and each issue ends with a crossword puzzle packed with jargon found throughout the preceding pages. (Clue 15 across from a recent puzzle calls for a nine-letter word for “bioluminescent bacterium.” Good luck!)

Typical of the magazine’s conversational approach is a recent story that describes the biological mechanism known as “quorum sensing” in terms of stinky socks and Finding Nemo characters.

“It’s an interesting audience to try to please,” Burnham says. “We want to make it interesting to non-science majors, but we don’t want to bore science majors either. It’s a delicate balance.”

Initially cobbled together in dorm rooms, the Synapse now boasts its own office in Wilder Hall. These days, the tightly knit operation of Burnham, Lawrence, and Roberts also includes dozens of student writers, designers, and editors.

“I’ve been very impressed by the issues they’ve put out so far,” says Professor Janice Thornton, chair of the Neuroscience department. “They’ve got a good team that has a lot of expertise. But it’s amazing that they’ve got time to do this, and to do such a great job.”

Not surprisingly, Burnham, Lawrence, and Roberts all hope the Synapse will outlive their tenure at Oberlin. Francis has already started building relationships with other colleges and universities in hopes of syndicating the magazine, and he’s working on an online forum to better facilitate debate and idea sharing. But for now, they just need to wrap the fall issue.

“This is something I could only have done at Oberlin,” says Burnham, who only smiles at the prospect of late nights studying and later nights editing. “I don’t think this could have happened anywhere else.”

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