Sometimes, the title has a question mark. The body of the text usually has the answer to the question in the title. This is not one of those. I don’t have an answer to this question.
SACNAS runs a conference for students from all kinds of science disciplines, and ostensibly targets Hipanics/Chicanos and Native Americans, but attracts a wider range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. ABRCMS is a biomedical conference for minority students. I don’t have any direct knowledge of these meetings. I’m just familiar with them from talking to many students who have gone in previous years, and a couple faculty in my university have been heavily involved with the organizations. (This is why I’m not situated to answer this question, because I lack the experience to do so.)
These conferences exist for good reasons. They help build diversity, equity and inclusion in the sciences. Junior scientists from minority groups need to feel a part of, and welcome in, science. Mentors and role models are also critical. Students need to see that their role models are doing cool, high-quality science and engage with them intellectually as well as on a personal level. From everything I’ve seen and heard, this kind of stuff happens at SACNAS and ABRCMS. This looks like a really good thing. I’m impressed with the outcomes and the positive vibe I get from students who come back from these meetings, especially from students at my university who do biomedical research.
I also have seen students come back even more jazzed from disciplinary conferences. Some of my students have been to both kinds of conferences. For example, in addition to SACNAS, they’ve been to the Entomology, Ecology, Tropical Biology or Social Insect meetings. (A variety of campus programs, such as AMP, might pay for the SACNAS meeting.) Insofar as I remember, my students felt like they got more out of the discipline-specific conference rather than the minority conference. (Of course, what they might choose to share with me is only part of the picture, I realize.) Compared to what the United States looks like, these other conferences are Mostly White. In my view, that’s a huge drawback because my students – no matter how much we communicate that they fit in and belong – might not feel like they belong.
Here’s a problem: I’ve heard from my students that they don’t feel like they belong at SACNAS. It’s a minority-positive environment, and everybody is interested in science and grad school, but my students have said that nobody seems to be interested in their science. They might put up a ioster about really cool and interesting things (to evo/eco/organismal types), and there is very little audience. When they discuss their research interests with others, they are not likely to be treated as a peer. And almost none of the talks at the conference are relevant. It’s cool to see all of these minority scientists all in one place, but what good is it if they’re not able to engage with my students about science? I’m okay if a student working in my lab chooses to go biomedical, but if they aren’t, then what science will they be doing at SACNAS?
I don’t think this kind of experience causes intellectual isolation in my students, in part because they’ve gone to other conferences and worked in a multi-ethnic Latin American field station. But let’s say that my students were really excited about their non-biomedically oriented work, but only had exposure to research on my own campus? How would they feel about fitting in after going to just SACNAS? I’m not sure how this would help them. They would see that there are all kinds of minority scientists, but would the meeting make them feel like they fit in if they don’t have shared research interests? They might meet some role models and make friends, but they are unlikely to encounter potential research mentors.
Which meeting is better for the progression for student careers? A) One with fellow minority scientists, few of whom share an academic focus, or B) mostly white people who share the same scientific focus?
I imagine that the best answer is, “it depends.” What I’m wondering about, in the title of this post, is which factors weigh the best answer towards A, and which towards B. Variables presumably include a student’s personality, personal history, scientific specialization, how much they’ve already networked, career stage, specificity of future plans, and who knows what else.
I’m not going to SACNAS because, the evo/eco flavors of science are afterthoughts, at best, at this meeting. Of course, there is a lot to learn and do about education, diversity, administering research programs, and other non-discipline specific concerns. While those are just great, or so I hear, it’s not something that I’m going to hop on a plane for, at least not more than once. For me, it’s not worth $600 and a few days in a convention center. But you never know, maybe I’ll go one of these years.
*At least on my campus, people seem to pronounce these acronyms as “sackniss”, and “ambercrams”