Elementary, my dear reader

Making real science accessible

by Mary Boone

Marissa Jones ’08 relates a story about a biology experiment gone wrong: “My lab partners and I were measuring the rate of oxygen consumption in germinating and dry peas, when we realized that the glass beads we were using as a control appeared to be breathing more than any of the peas.”

The not-so-science-minded writer listening to her tale chuckles, pauses, squints, thinks about the experiment again and—minutes later—“gets it” that beads aren’t supposed to respire.

That’s OK with Jones. She’s not one to pass judgment on those of us who never managed to memorize the Periodic Table. She’s plenty bright, but she’s focused her efforts on making science interesting to folks who don’t own their own lab coats.

Enter Elements, a smart but accessible magazine, written, designed, and published by Jones and a handful of fellow Puget Sound science enthusiasts.

“At first we thought about putting together some sort of mock science journal,” she says. “But then we realized there was a need for a real science magazine about real scientific research.”

Jones rallied her science buddies and started brainstorming ideas for stories and regular features. She recruited Nick Kiest ’08, a friend since preschool who had experience in layout and design. And she asked Assistant Professor of Biology Mark Martin to serve as faculty advisor.

“When they first approached me about wanting to put together a magazine, I was a little skeptical,” says Martin. “I guess I’d watched too much Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, because all I could think was, ‘Let’s put on a show!’ Then I went to a couple of their meetings, and I realized they had assembled a good team. They knew what they were doing, and they really didn’t need me at all,” he says.

Using their own cameras, readily available publishing software, and cash donations from various science departments, professors, and family members, Jones and crew set out to create and publish the first issue of Elements in spring 2006.

“We spent about 72 hours straight, crowded around my computer in my room in Trimble,” recalls Kiest, a computer science and business major. “It was not exactly an ideal set-up, and we were all sending stories to our parents to be copy edited, but in the end, it turned out great.”

The full-color magazine, which is now produced once each semester, is distributed free on campus. The staff, with a core of around eight, now has access to university photo services images and part-time use of The Trail’s newsroom computers. While they’re not funded as well as other campus media organizations (campus rules prohibit that until they’ve been in existence at least three years), ASUPS has helped underwrite the cost of the magazine. The science departments contribute funds, and the offices of the president, admission, and alumni and parent relations have purchased copies, which helps cover costs.

Elements articles run the gamut, touching on topics from the science of beer making and the potential spread of avian flu to an investigation into what’s living inside the Nalgene water bottles students haul from class to class. A favorite regular feature is “Cosmopolitan Nerd,” a mock magazine cover complete with a safety-goggle wearing model and phony article teasers like: “101 positions for the best asexual reproduction ever” and “How to make your symbiotic relationship last.”

With Jones, Kiest, and many of Element’s most frequent contributors graduating in May, there’s been an effort to recruit and train new staff members.

“We don’t want Elements to end with us,” says Jones. “I think we’ve all seen that this is a project that needs to continue long after we’re gone.”

Professor Martin also hopes the magazine lives on. “I’m really proud of what these students have done, and not because I’ve been there, peering over their shoulders,” he says. “I’m proud because nothing about putting this magazine together has been easy. But, in the tradition of UPS students, they’ve championed their cause, they’ve worked hard, and they haven’t taken ‘No’ for an answer.

“This isn’t a bunch of professors operating on the sly. Elements is a 100 percent student-run publication, and that should make anyone associated with the university proud.”