October 20, 2016
You might not think that a conference for SACNAS (the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science) is for you. That’s what I thought. Before grad school I worked at the National Science Foundation, and my unofficial mentor at that job would always tell me, “You should go to SACNAS,” and I would always reply, “I’m not Hispanic!” Obviously I was very ignorant because after going to SACNAS in mid-October, I can say that this is a great conference for anyone even peripherally interested in increasing diversity in STEM, or just interested in sharing their science with a broader audience.
I’ll just back up and say how SACNAS is similar and different to AGU and GSA, since those are the other conferences I have attended. Scientific oral presentations are given exclusively by grad students and postdocs, and posters are presented by undergraduate and graduate students. Even though professors and other scientists beyond postdoc level don’t present their science at SACNAS, they run useful sessions on professional development and advice on various career paths aimed at students and early-career professionals.
The sessions were really varied and covered such topics as “Postdoc Fundamentals: Selecting a training experience to match your career goals”; “Transmitting Science Through Stories,” which was run by a producer from NOVA and involved a hands-on workshop; and specific info sessions such as one with former and current USGS Mendenhall postdoctoral fellows. Compared to conferences like AGU and GSA, there were (unsurprisingly) more sessions focused on racial and ethnic identity and diversity in the sciences. The session “Successful science career and a rewarding family life” was the best-attended session by far, attracting a really diverse audience of mostly students interested in how others have successfully navigated work-life balance.
Everyone was very supportive at this conference, and it was clear that SACNAS wants to create a tight-knit community. One way they do this is by having everyone (~4,000 attendees) gather together for lunches and dinners together in the event center, where there were speakers in plenary sessions talking about research and science education.
Compared to more traditional scientific conferences, there was a laid-back and almost joyous atmosphere. The music played during meals was amazing, and the annual Native American Pow Wow was crazy fun.
One negative about this conference was the lack of geoscience representation — most of the attendees are from the biological sciences. For example, in the session where I gave my oral presentation “Life Science and Geosciences”, there were only two geology talks! Two! In the whole conference!
While underrepresented ethnic and racial minorities make up less than 17% of undergraduates, 13% of masters students, 7% of doctoral students, and less than 10% of faculty members in STEM fields, the geosciences have the lowest diversity of all the STEM fields at all levels of higher education (National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, 2015). I would encourage geoscientists of any background, especially students and faculty members within the Jackson School, to attend this conference. Showing up at SACNAS—the way biologists have—would be a good first step in broadening our discipline.