Undergraduate Magazine: Snakes, Spiders, and Scribes
An insatiable scientific curiosity leads Jonathan Belanich to the editorial helm of UA’s student-produced research journal.
By Kristi Payne
As editor-in-chief of The University of Alabama’s completely student-driven Journal of Science and Health at UA, Jonathan Belanich found a passion for promoting undergraduate research.
Established in 2003, the magazine, called JOSHUA, has brought UA’s cutting-edge undergraduate research to international attention, and Belanich takes that very seriously.
“Research is necessary for scientific progress, but unless it is published, it is just data in a log book somewhere,” he said. “There is a lot of good research being conducted on campus, and it should be published to show just what we have been doing.”
Belanich, a May 2014 graduate who majored in biology and anthropology, credits UA’s research programs with solidifying his decision to make the 1,200-mile move to the Capstone from his hometown of Lindenhurst, New York, after graduating from high school.
“I chose UA because of the amount of research being conducted and the opportunity for freshmen to participate in it,” he said.
Belanich developed a passion for science as a young child and hasn’t stopped wanting to immerse himself in new research opportunities ever since.
“I was always interested in the world around me and what was happening in our bodies,” he said. “Having a lot of questions prompted both reading and looking for answers.”
He first visited UA as a high school recruit. His skill and enthusiasm caught the attention of Dr. Guy Caldwell, professor of biological sciences at UA and faculty adviser to JOSHUA. Caldwell knew when he met Belanich that he had the makings of a prolific researcher and that UA would be the perfect place for him to flourish as a scientist.
“(Belanich) is a rare combination of passion and competence who strikes me as a person who gets things done, but enjoys the process,” Caldwell said.
Once on campus, Belanich took advantage of those freshman research opportunities. Within a year of arriving on campus, he submitted his first article to JOSHUA and was published in the eighth edition. That piece focused on his research of the metabolic rate and digestive energetics of Chilean rose-haired tarantulas, a project for which he was handpicked by Dr. Stephen Secor, associate professor of biological sciences. Though the eight-legged creatures may be phobia-inducing for some, Belanich – who had already worked with pythons in Secor’s lab – was not intimidated by the prospect of studying the arachnids in depth.
“It was interesting because (they) have such different mechanisms for eating than other animals of their size,” said Belanich, who continued developing and expanding his arachnid research throughout his time at UA.
Secor said the information gleaned from the research has proven invaluable to the study of arachnid energetics. He credits Belanich’s relentless, round-the-clock data collection, trial development and data analysis for the success of the project.
JOSHUA was the perfect place to publish such a study. Throughout its 11 years of publication, the journal has featured a number of surprisingly diverse articles, such as a piece that applied evolutionary theory to hip-hop culture and an award-winning philosophy paper on the ethics of human cloning.
The following year, Caldwell recruited Belanich to serve as a student editor for the journal’s ninth edition and invited him to be the editor-in-chief of the 10th volume.
“It is his personal exuberance for science and the manner by which he engages people that told me he would be an ideal representative for the journal,” said Caldwell, who is particularly acquainted with what it takes to publish a successful undergraduate journal of science.
As an undergraduate at Washington and Lee University, Caldwell co-founded a journal of students’ research and scientific reviews. Later, as a faculty member at UA, he saw the opportunity to reproduce the concept here.
The National Biological Honor Society, TriBeta, for which Caldwell served as adviser, served as a springboard for establishing JOSHUA. Initial funding came from multiple sources, including the Howard Hughes Medical Institute undergraduate program at UA and Caldwell’s own National Science Foundation CAREER award. The UA administration, the Office of Admissions and Honors College have funded the journal since the initial grants ended.
The Howard Hughes Medical Institute selected the journal as one of only three undergraduate journals nationwide to highlight in its quarterly bulletin. Thanks to features such as that one, as well as the international audience of the publication’s online version, JOSHUA’s staff members now routinely receive publishing requests from students and faculty at other universities.
Caldwell says the success and longevity of the publication rests squarely on the shoulders of students like Belanich.
“JOSHUA’s content is completely written, edited and peer-reviewed by undergraduate staff members at UA,” he said. “While articles must be endorsed by a faculty sponsor, the work represented in the journal is almost exclusively that of students.”
As for Belanich, in addition to his work with JOSHUA, he continued to add new species to his data collection and pursued other research, including working with Dr. Christopher Lynn of UA’s Human Behavioral Ecology Research Group on a study on cultural knowledge and mating success. He even presented talks at scientific meetings.
“It’s a pleasure to watch Jonathan describe his work to others,” said Secor. “He becomes quite animated and loves to describe how the tarantulas and scorpions eat.”
Researcher, editor, speaker and now UA graduate, Belanich is well-prepared to take the next step in his research career.
“I feel that my positive experiences with research at UA have fully prepared me to successfully pursue higher studies,” said Belanich.