When are minority-focused conferences the best choice?


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.

Have you heard of SACNAS or ABRCMS?* These organizations put on a big science conference somewhere in the US each year. (SACNAS is passing through my own city next week.)

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”

6 thoughts on “When are minority-focused conferences the best choice?

  1. I’ve attended both SACNAS and ABRCMS.
    On the science side – SACNAS is very general. The poster sessions are more about showcasing what under grads, grads (and postdocs) are doing. It is arranged by discipline, but there will not be a lot of individuals presenting on any topic to offer the depth and breadth one may get at a discipline-specific conference.

    ABRCMS is biomedical, and yes, folks seem to be very, very interested in the science happening at these conferences. Again, the poster sessions is where students, grad students, post docs and some faculty are doing. I know of many students who find mentors at this conference in particular.

    Minority focused conferences emphasize professional development. And because they draw students from many, many disciplines the panels and presentations are deliberately broad in scope.

    It’s not about which conference is better for students because they offer very different things. I recommend students attend discipline specific meetings and at least one minority-focused conference, too – if there is funding provided.

  2. As a faculty member who has been an attendee and participant in both SACNAS and ABRCMS (even before it was called that), let me comment on the recent post. First, attending a minority conference is critical for everyone, and especially underrepresented minorities (URMs) as although it does unfortunately point out the paucity of minorities in the sciences, at the same time it shows the students that there are indeed others like them in the field, a fact that sometimes they lose track of even at MSIs due to the small numbers of URM faculty. When I was Program Director of an NIH minority grant, I made sure that my students attended these conferences. At the same time, I also encouraged my students to attend the scientific, discipline conferences, e.g. The Endocrine Society to see that they are indeed grossly under represented and, as such, need to be there to make a difference. As to the quality of the presentations of the minority conferences versus the discipline specific scientific conferences, the differences are far less obvious than in years past as many presentations at the minority conferences are work done a majority research intensive institutions, resulting often from a summer research programs. Very importantly relative to the comments about students possibly “feeling left out”, the major reason, most likely, is that both SACNAS and ABRCMS are focused more on biomedical research. In fact Biomedical is in the name of ABRCMS. (In recent years, there has been a movement to include more behavioral sciences, especially at ABRCMS). As for SACNAS, it has not been quite as focused on the biomedical sciences with math , earth sciences, astronomy and physics being a part of the agenda. However, in neither case, has the disciplines referred to by Dr. McGlynn been considered a significant emphasis at these conferences (part of which related to the source of funding which is NIGMS). Thus, it is important to note that these “minority conferences” are very important to the academy, particularly to STEM and important to all scientists , i.e. both majorities and minorities, for actually some of the same reasons. Hopefully, in time, similar conferences will be developed that focus on the disciplines referred to earlier and will include an emphasis also on URMS. In the meantime, encouraging students (and faculty) to attend conferences where maybe they don’t “fit in” as much as they like would enable them to feel how URMs feel at most conferences today, in addition to their presence in the general education pipeline.

  3. To echo what DNLee and Thomas have already said, I think a combination of both is useful. I’m not very familiar with these specific conferences (although an undergrad that I mentored applied to ABRCMS), but a similar dilemma exists with conferences for women in Computer Science (the two main ones being the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing and the CRA-W Graduate Cohort Conference). I have attended both of these conferences and found the professional development to be incredibly useful – they often create environments where it’s possible to talk much more frankly about obstacles specific to women in CS than it would be in other settings. As a result, the professional development (or at least the women-in-CS specific professional development) at these conferences was leaps and bounds ahead of similar professional development attempted at many non-minority specific conferences. However, the poster sessions are generally useful more as a conversation starter than anything else, due to the lack of overlap in subfields. So going to more subfield-specific conferences is also a necessity. Assuming my experiences generalize to conferences aimed at racial minorities, there might be some benefit to prioritizing them more early in a student’s career to give them that professional development/confidence boost/support as soon as possible and then shifting to more discipline-specific conferences as they start having more research to present. But unless there needs to be a direct trade-off, both seems better.

    Of course, there might be a better long-run solution. I alluded to non-minority conferences attempting to do minority-focused (or, even better, inclusivity-focused) professional development. While I haven’t seen this done terribly successfully in the past, likely due to lack of experience, I think it has a lot of potential to be the best of both worlds. It provides a vehicle to make the main conference for a discipline more inclusive, provides a support structure within that scientific community, and basically says to people from the underrepresented group in question that they are being welcomed. That said, this obviously won’t work for fields that don’t already have at least some critical mass of diversity. I have no idea if this would actually prove to be more effective in the long run than having two different types of conferences, but I’m just throwing it out there.

    On the other hand, an excuse to talk to people from different fields can prove to be really useful if they’re interested in talking to you too.

  4. I’ve been to two minority conferences – SACNAS and GHC (the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, a yearly conference for academic and industry women in computer science and computer engineering). I’d like to go to Tapia (which is for all underrepresented groups, both gender and racial/ethnic, in computing) at some point.

    In terms of technical interest, yes, these are limited. SACNAS seems to be really heavy on biomedical stuff. GHC has, shall we say, more programming for certain areas of computing than for others, though at least everyone is in the broad field of computing. The year I went to SACNAS was also weird because it was during the government shutdown and so a lot of government employees, including recruiting employers and the planned keynote speaker for the first night, couldn’t attend.

    As DNLee said, a primary purpose of these conferences is professional development and networking with other minorities in your field. There are corporate and university recruiters there (we send people to SACNAS to, among other things, recruit undergrads for summer REUs). There are resume/CV development sessions, and panels focused on the career needs of undergrads, grads, and postdocs. These are incredibly friendly conferences, with a heavy emphasis on mentorship. GHC is big enough that you also get sessions geared at multiple minorities – people who are not only underrepresented in computing because of gender, but are also black, Latina, or LGBTQ (those are the ones that I remember getting their own programming in the past). SACNAS also had at least one session for LGBTQ attendees that I remember going to.

    At SACNAS, there was some interesting cultural programming too, including local tribes holding their powwow at the conference with an open invitation for all conference attendees, regardless of race, to attend. They allowed a group of Inuit students from an Alaska university to do one of their own traditional dances as part of the powwow.

    One of the previous times I went to GHC was before I was in a PhD program, and was taking classes part-time while working full-time. During the scholarship recipients’ lunch, I called a breakout session for nontraditional students, broadly defined to include everyone who was a working commuter student, a nontraditional age, someone who had had a major change in field, etc. We kept in touch with each other for a couple of years afterward and even gave a presentation on serving the needs of nontraditional students at the next GHC. At least one person from that group, a woman who went for her bachelor’s and then her PhD in computer science in early middle age, is now faculty (at a teaching-oriented school).

    Basically, as several others have said, they don’t have the same purpose as regular conferences – they’re more about career development, mentorship, and networking (and they are quite good at that), with the technical aspects being secondary (though if you are in the “right” field/subfield, i.e. one with a critical mass of people at the conference, you probably get more technical emphasis).

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