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Positively Charged

Mentors, recruiters, and speakers inspired minority science students at SACNAS national conference

December 6, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 49

Student volunteers demonstrate hands-on chemistry during Community Day.
Student volunteers demonstrate hands-on chemistry during Community Day.

Sí se puede. this simple phrase, Spanish for "yes we can," speaks volumes to the more than 2,000 students, educators, and professionals who shouted it in unison at an awards dinner during the 2004 Society for Advancement of Chicanos & Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) national conference, held from Oct. 21 to 24 in Austin, Texas.

SACNAS, which has been lauded by the National Science Board as "the premier organization that promotes diversity in science careers," was founded in the early 1970s by a small group of minority scientists working at universities across the country who met during a meeting at the National Institutes of Health.

"It was initially formed because they felt incredibly isolated at their institutions," said Jenny Kurzweil, SACNAS staff member and editor of the association's newsletter, SACNAS News. "For the first 15 years, the organization was about finding other people and building a community."

Since then, SACNAS has blossomed into a national organization with more than 2,000 members of various ethnic backgrounds. The organization offers services for undergraduate and graduate students; kindergarten through high school teachers; and industry, government, and academic professionals. SACNAS maintains a strong base in biomedical sciences but has expanded to include most scientific and engineering disciplines.

"This organization is committed to the attainment of graduate degrees in science by minorities," explained Luis E. Martinez, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Texas, El Paso (UTEP), and a SACNAS board member for the past five years. "It's a tremendous opportunity for students to see what they can do after they get a Ph.D.--they can see someone with their same cultural background in a position 10 years forward. For many first-time attendees, this meeting is a huge motivating factor."

Along with exposure to mentors and role models, a main attraction at the meeting for students is the exposition hall, which is filled with recruiters from universities and government and industrial research labs. The Austin meeting drew nearly 200 exhibitors from institutions across the country.

"I was first attracted to SACNAS by the opportunity to meet a large concentration of minority students who had an interest in science," said exhibitor Nancy E. Street, associate dean in the division of cell and molecular biology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas. "The students I talk to here are very savvy--they really know what to ask and are obviously familiar with the way research works."

Several other exhibitors also commented on the high level of confidence and preparedness that student attendees displayed. "This organization has been so important in terms of growing and grooming exceptional future scientists," said Joyce Hopson-King, director of diversity enhancement programs at the College of Health & Human Development at Pennsylvania State University.

Cyndi Freeman Fail, director of diversity enhancement for Penn State's College of Earth & Mineral Sciences, agreed: "The students who come to this conference are very focused on their science. They have very clear expectations."

According to Guillermo Pilar, a professor of neuroscience at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, the self-confidence displayed by student attendees can at least be partially attributed to the welcoming, familial atmosphere at the meeting. "This conference is very important for students who don't have higher education in their family background, who are the first generation to graduate high school and go to college," Pilar said. "They feel at home here. They don't feel threatened."

Pilar added that the SACNAS conference also boosts students' confidence by giving them a rare opportunity to interact directly with representatives from top schools. "Imagine growing up in a small Indian village in Gallup, N.M., and being invited to be a graduate student at Harvard," he said as an example.

The expo hall was also the stage for undergraduate poster presentations, which offered students a valuable opportunity to present their work to peers and recruiters. Sergio Sanchez, a junior pursuing a chemistry degree at Occidental College, Los Angeles, attended the SACNAS meeting for the first time this year to present a poster on his research in naphthoquinone synthesis.

"I definitely want to go to grad school," he told C&EN after explaining his work. Sanchez admitted that he originally wanted to stay in California so he could be near his hometown while continuing his studies. But after talking with exhibitors at their booths and recruiters who came to review his poster, he is now considering programs at schools in other parts of the country.

CASES SUCH as Sanchez's are exactly what admissions coordinators such as Jennifer Bates from Ohio State University's department of chemistry are hoping to find at SACNAS. "Most of the students at Ohio State are from the midwestern region, so it's good for us to reach out to other communities," she said. "Diversity increases the depth of our programs." SACNAS also reaches out to the minority population of its host city by holding an annual Community Day that opens the expo hall to the public for free. The event was cosponsored this year by the American Chemical Society and featured hands-on chemistry demonstrations and a session on genomic science and health led by Francis S. Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute.

In addition to his presentation at Community Day, Collins was one of six keynote speakers at the SACNAS meeting. In his address, he gave an overview of the Human Genome Project as well as what he called the "grand challenges" for the future of genomics research as it relates to biology, human health, and science policy. He then spoke about the opportunities for minority students to get involved with genomics research at NIH.


"My hope is that in this roomful of talent there will be some of you who think this will be your life's work," he told the audience. "The future of all of this depends on you."

Peter C. Agre, professor of medicine and biological chemistry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and cowinner of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, also addressed SACNAS attendees. He opened his keynote speech by regaling the audience with his whimsical answer to the question, "How do you win a Nobel Prize?" On a more serious note, Agre credited the educators he had throughout his lifetime as major contributors to his success.

"I had wonderful teachers who saved me from self-destruction," he told the crowd, referring to his early days as a class clown. He then urged students in the room to consider the value of increased science literacy in society.

"We are undergoing a real crisis in the U.S. of anti-intellectualism," he said. "There are public figures in the U.S. who are proud to be uninformed. It's shocking. We need to do better."

Near the end of the meeting, keynote speaker Donna J. Nelson, associate professor of chemistry at the University of Oklahoma, used examples from her life to illustrate how each individual's cultural upbringing can add value to the way he or she solves problems. "When I decided to go into physical organic chemistry, I didn't think any of my background would influence my chemistry," she said. But she was mistaken. Nelson employed visualization techniques inspired by the artistic community in her hometown of Eufaula, Okla., to help her students master electrophile/nucleophile reactions.

Nelson went on to discuss the importance of mobilizing underrepresented groups to increase the number of working minority scientists, particularly in academia. As part of her address, she presented survey data she had collected to compare the number of underrepresented minorities who earn doctorate degrees with those who become faculty members at top research schools in the U.S.

For chemistry, Nelson's data show that, of the Ph.D.s awarded between 1993 and 2002, 3.2% went to Hispanics and 0.4% went to Native Americans. However, Hispanics account for only 1.8% of tenured or tenure-track faculty at the top 50 chemistry departments in the country, and Native Americans come in at 0.2%.

"Did any of these numbers get you mad?" UTEP's Martinez asked the audience after Nelson's address. Loudly affirmative answers echoed across the room. "I challenge you to get that degree, get that postdoc, and get that job," he continued, "because it's the only way we'll change those numbers."


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