Three people — two seated and one standing — looking at a laptop computer on a table.
Zuhayr Shaikh, STEM section editor; Caitlin Cain, co-editor-in-chief; and Eram Mallick, News and Noteworthy section editor, collaborate at an editorial meeting in the spring for Auctus: The Journal of Undergraduate Research and Creative Scholarship. (Photo by Michelle Nguyen, Auctus co-editor-in-chief)

The journal bringing the work of undergraduate VCU researchers to the world

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Marisa Wood has long maintained a strong interest in Native American culture. Wood’s family is part of the Monacan tribe, and her aunt, Karenne Wood, who died this year, was a poet, researcher and influential advocate for greater recognition of Native Americans in Virginia. When Marisa Wood was a first-year Honors College student at Virginia Commonwealth University, she took a rhetoric class built around the task of writing a comprehensive paper of original research. She knew she wanted to focus on a topic tied to her Native American background.

She started with the idea of writing about the people who go to the Coachella music festival and wear Native American headdresses. The paper soon grew more expansive than Wood had anticipated, taking surprising turns and sending her down rabbit holes she had not expected. Her focus shifted and deepened. She found herself studying not just Native American history but the culture of hipsters, cultural appropriation in the fashion industry, the traditions of various Native American tribes (including the headdress varieties and their meanings), the legal ownership rights of Native Americans to their craft traditions, and how Americans are taught about Native American history and culture. The work was harder than she’d expected, but ultimately more gratifying because of it. 

“I really wanted to do a good job and the more I worked on it the more I got really, really into it,” Wood said. “I spent a lot of time on it and was passionate about getting it right. I just lost myself in it.” 

Wood’s resulting paper, “Cultural Appropriation and the Plains’ Indian Headdress,” was a sophisticated, nuanced take on a challenging topic. Wood’s teacher, Mary Boyes, associate professor of the writing program in the Honors College, encouraged Wood to submit the paper to Auctus: The Journal of Undergraduate Research and Creative Scholarship, which publishes VCU undergraduate researchers. The paper was accepted and published in May 2017.

That was only the beginning of the paper’s life. Eventually, researchers and others around the world began to access the paper from the Auctus website to read and share. Wood’s study is now the most downloaded paper in the history of Auctus, having been downloaded more than 5,000 times.

Eram Mallick, section editor for Auctus, said the paper has proved popular for a host of reasons, including the strength of the writing, widespread interest in the topic and Wood’s mastery of the subject.

“It’s a great showcase of what VCU’s undergraduate researchers have to offer the world,” Mallick said.

A student-led, student-authored journal

The paper is far from an outlier. The journal routinely publishes papers that gain traction and visibility. Boyes, who serves as senior advisor for Auctus, said the journal’s page views are in the thousands each month.

Auctus is open to all VCU undergraduate students up to a year after their graduation. The Honors College and the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program are the journal’s sponsors. A previous iteration of Auctus went defunct, but Boyes; Faye Prichard, assistant professor and director of writing for the Honors College; Jacqueline Smith-Mason, Ph.D., senior associate dean and director of academic and faculty affairs for the Honors College; and Herb Hill, director of undergraduate research and creative inquiry at VCU, revived the publication to support VCU’s mission as an urban institute of research and creative scholarship.

“VCU students are doing amazing things — from figuring out ways to use rhyme to help Alzheimer’s patients overcome memory loss, to diagnosing depression in epileptic patients, to creating scores for plays, to identifying systemic issues that lead to racism in the prescription of pain medications, to choreographing modern dance,” Boyes said. “All of these pursuits deserve institutional recognition — they deserve a home somewhere so that the world can see and use the research and creative scholarship that our talented students have created.”

Auctus has a team of faculty advisors that includes Boyes; Christine J. Cynn, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences; Rebecca Martin, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology in the School of Medicine; Jake Stringer, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the School of Medicine Office of Assessment, Evaluation and Fellowship; and Sarah Faris, associate professor in the Department of Communication Arts of the School of the Arts. However, Boyes said the journal is “completely student-run.”

“Our staff and editors — all students — get to practice their editing and critical-thinking skills with Auctus,” said Boyes, who emphasizes that student researchers and staff come from across the university — not just the Honors College. “While a host of faculty experts advise student editors, it is the students who ultimately determine what and how we publish. Though we spend a lot of time helping our staff, we believe in autonomy and agency of students. We trust them to run the journal.”

All of these pursuits deserve institutional recognition — they deserve a home somewhere so that the world can see and use the research and creative scholarship that our talented students have created.

A collaborative approach

Michelle Nguyen serves as co-editor-in-chief of Auctus. She began working on Auctus toward the end of her freshman year because of her interest in conducting her own research. A biomedical engineering major in the College of Engineering and a member of the Honors College, Nguyen said research captivates her because “it’s about not knowing the answer to something and trying to learn more. It’s not necessarily finding the answer that’s exciting to me. It’s about the process of trying to figure it out.”

Nguyen said one of the pleasures of being on the Auctus staff is working with fellow students navigating the research process and helping them sharpen and clarify their findings. Nguyen said reading other students’ research and working with them to present it has strengthened her appreciation for the practice. 

“Before, I thought of research as something you did more independently,” she said. “Auctus creates a real discussion among students, and it feels more team-based and collaborative. I find that really enriches my experience.”

Nguyen said VCU offers a hospitable climate for undergraduate student research to flourish.

“If undergrads here are interested in research, there are a lot of labs and a lot of faculty willing to bring them on,” Nguyen said. “Because of that environment, I think a lot of the undergraduate research here is very impressive.” 

Nguyen said the quality of the work motivates her in her own work.

“The students on our office staff and the student researchers that send us submissions are driven, ambitious, passionate people,” Nguyen said. “I’ve learned a lot from them. It’s hard not to be inspired when you’re reading all of this great work.”

Mallick said Auctus staff members read research in a variety of subject areas and expand their horizons as a result.

“I’ve always been very STEM-oriented, focused on math and science, so my definition of research was admittedly narrow,” said Mallick, an economics and math major who is on a pre-med track and is a member of the Honors College. “Working on Auctus, I’ve been exposed to so many different types of research in areas like art and social sciences. I’ve learned a lot about what research can be.”

Mallick said Auctus seeks work that contributes something new to a discipline, prizing original perspectives and asking the question, “Can other researchers build off this?”

“Going through other people’s research has definitely strengthened my research abilities,” Mallick said. “I’m able to look at my own personal research and say, ‘Am I adding something new to the field or just regurgitating something?’ Because I can see my own research from the reviewer’s side, I think it’s deepened my research and helped make it more impactful because I’m doing that critical reflection.”

The students on our office staff and the student researchers that send us submissions are driven, ambitious, passionate people. I’ve learned a lot from them. It’s hard not to be inspired when you’re reading all of this great work.

Getting the word out

Auctus is designed to help spread the work of students as far and wide as possible. Editors enter keywords for each piece they publish, and VCU Libraries archives the papers in VCU Scholars Compass, a publishing platform for the university community.

“Students get an institutional stamp of approval, a unique [digital object identifier], and search-engine optimization for their work,” Boyes said. “What is published in Auctus is often seen as much as work in professional journals. Whether a student is a poet, a scientist, a musician or sociologist, when her work is published in Auctus, she gains an audience of professional academic peers and audience of the wider world.” 

Nguyen said helping to provide undergraduate student research with a home provides her with a particular sense of satisfaction.

“Knowing that these pieces are being downloaded day after day and will be read for years is really great,” she said. “There’s much more of a lasting impact to the work. There are people who will continue to benefit from it. We’re really giving students a platform to share their work and for their work to be discovered by other people who are interested in similar topics.”

Marisa Wood holds her diploma from The Honors College of Virginia Commonwealth University.
Marisa Wood's paper on the cultural appropriation of Plains Indians' headdresses has been downloaded around the world. (Photo courtesy of Marisa Wood)

Wood, who graduated from VCU in 2018, is amazed and gratified at the interest her paper has received since its publication. Her work on the study also proved to be a catalyst to future academic pursuits. When she began her research, she was driven in part by anger at those appropriating the headdress in the name of fashion. However, her investigation led her to explore how Americans are taught about Native American history and culture in school. She realized how little she had known about issues related to her topic, even with her family background, and she became increasingly interested in questions of how history education related to Native Americans is shaped not just in the United States but in other countries

Wood left this month on a Fulbright scholarship to Russia to teach English and conduct research. She hopes to study history education and examine how Russians are educated about Native Americans.

She said the through line from her research paper is evident.

“I got a sense of momentum from that paper and its publication — it got me moving forward as a student,” Wood said. “The attention it got validated the work I had done on it. It’s nice to look back at it and think, ‘That’s an important thing I did, and it made an impact. I can be proud of it.’”