Conference report: SACNAS


Here is a detailed report on my brief experience with the SACNAS meeting, aggregated as an unordered set of observations and thoughts.

Just a short while ago, I was wondering whether my students are better served attending a disciplinary meeting, or a minority-focused conference. I was given the opportunity by SACNAS to see for myself. The comments on my earlier post were helpful, and described my question as a false dichotomy. As the commenters indicated, one meeting cannot substitute the other, as they are different creatures.

I was only available to attend two-half days (on account of mountains of personal stuff, but this is not That Kind of blog). I was there long enough to get a feel for the meeting, or at least I thought so. I talked with a bunch of students and exhibitors – first time attendees and old hands – about what they put into and get out of the meeting.

The science was high quality, and the undergraduate posters in my disciplines would fit in well at a discipline-specific national conference. All kinds of science were represented, though the vast majority was biomedical. There was enough science up my alley to be able to engage about a dozen students in a meaningful way over the course of the ten or so hours I was at the conference.

People were extraordinarily friendly at SACNAS. At some meetings (like the Ecological Society of America) I’ve felt an air of anxiety among some fraction of the students: a concern about being able to meet the right people, to be acknowledged, handle the high level of academic competition, and respond effectively to critical questions. At this meeting, there was a uniform vibe of friendliness and an attitude that we are all in this together. As far as I saw, students were happy with themselves and with one another, PIs were generous with their time, and all of the scientists who attended were there with the primary goal of supporting students. This was very refreshing to see a convergence of research-oriented scientists, student-centeredness, and a deliberate focus on human diversity.

The meeting was designed for students to interact with one another and with working scientists as much as possible, and the sessions with research were equally matched with sessions about professional development. The registration included meals for students, and fun evening events designed to keep students at the meeting with one another, rather than wandering off to eat and have fun away from the conference. One colleague of mine, whose university is just over a half-hour from the convention center, still chose to book students into hotels so that they could benefit from the social environment of the conference. The students that I talked to were enthusiastic about the benefits of the meeting, moreso than I typically see from the small fraction of undergraduates at discipline-specific conferences. It is clear that this experience helps build a positive trajectory toward research careers.

There were a couple hours set aside one afternoon for “Conversations with Scientists” with shared research interests. I first showed up at the room designated for “Animal Sciences, Zoology/Entomology, General Biology & Other Biological Sciences.” There was a round table in the room with an Entomology label. I was the only entomologist there, and there were about seven undergraduates and one Master’s student, all of whom where entomologists or on their way to becoming one. It was fun, but a little daunting, to be the the only person to represent the discipline. We had what I thought was a nice conversation, and I tried my best, though acknowledged that opinions are best received when expressed from multiple sources. For example, every scientist will have a different answer to the question, “Should I do a Master’s degree first?” and I gave them my take, with an eye to the particulars of entomology.

As we approached near the end of the conversation time, I parted ways with the entomology students and headed over to the Ecology & Evolution room, as I was concerned that there would be the same situation with lots of ecology students without professional ecologists to talk to. But the situation was entirely reversed! The room was filled with more than 20 PhD-level scientists working for universities and government agencies, with just a few students in the room. I chatted mostly with a postdoc who was sent to the meeting to represent her organization, and from a quick scan of the room I am guessing that most of the ecologists at Conversation Time were at SACNAS with purpose of recruiting students, and not many (if any) were there supporting their own students in attendance at the meeting. So I experienced a bit of a mismatch, in which ecological organizations seem to be working to recruit minority students, but the entomological organizations (USDA, the military, agricultural biotech megacorporations, Departments of Entomology) haven’t seem to have discovered SACNAS yet.

I attended a 1.5 hour session about being a faculty member at a teaching-centered institution. (Of the four people I knew in the room, two were invited speakers.) The room had about 20 postdocs and PhD students in the room. About half of them had their start in community colleges, and about one-third of them were pursuing jobs at research-focused universities. (None expressed familiarity with the phrase “student learning outcomes.”) This session offered a pretty straightforward explanation of the differences between R1 institutions and non-R1 institutions. The panelists represented a a small liberal arts college, a community college, a comprehensive public university, and a Catholic university with an undergraduate emphasis (where I used to work).

The session was a mostly straightforward explanation of faculty jobs at teaching-centered institutions, and communicated the fact that every university and every department is different, and that research can be the central part of your job at a teaching centered institution. Two of the four panelists had robust research agendas, and do an amazing job mentoring their students, though they were humble enough that I don’t think the grad students and postdocs in the audience appreciated how badass they actually are. As far as I can recall, mentorship did not come up as a topic, which is one of the biggest pieces of the job for scientists of all flavors working in universities. Overall, I think it was an informative session, especially for people interested in understanding how community colleges work. I thought it was odd to lump in community colleges with 4-year universities with research expectations, but I suppose to most people from research universities, jobs like mine might not look that different from jobs at community colleges. (And that why this blog exists, to work to dispel such notions.)

I do want to take some time to dispel one notion that somwhat-emerged in the session. One of the questions from the audience was about work-life balance and how many “hard hours of work” faculty put into their jobs. The responses from the panel were were highly variable, and on point, but the clear subtext of the question wasn’t addressed: “Is the job at a teaching-centered institution less time-intensive, stressful or demanding than a job at a research university?” Since the panelists didn’t address this technically-unasked question, I’d like to answer it. It is not any easier. It’s different. It doesn’t require less time, less effort, or less stress than an R1 job. Keep in mind that even jobs at research universities don’t have to be gruesome in terms of life balance, either. I got the feeling that some of the people in the room might have been in interested in primarily-teaching institutions not because they wanted that kind of job, but because they were looking for an alternative to the fast-paced environment at a research institution. So, here I am to tell you that taking a job at a teaching-centered university isn’t downshifting to a slower pace of life. Yes, getting grants and publishing papers is hard work. And we do that at teaching institutions, on top of all of the teaching we do. The expectations of the workplace that influence your quality of life aren’t dictated so much by the type of institution, but the actual conditions in a given university and department. Some R1s have productive researchers and a laid-back environment tied to a high quality of life, and the opposite could be said of many teaching-centered departments. It’s very individualized, and this is why what you learn on a job interview is so important.

From browsing nametags, I got the impression that most students at SACNAS came from regional state universities. While minority students are typically uncommon in research institutions and liberal arts colleges, I don’t think that’s the only reason why students from regional state universities dominate at SACNAS. Students go because they get support from their own institutions. The supportive community at the meeting is needed more in universities where there is less social cohesion among research students. When very few students live on campus, and many students are working many hours in jobs off campus, it’s a lot harder to build a sense of community in which undergraduates share a common academic purpose. This meeting seems to fill that need pretty well, at least as well as you can do in a few days. It takes exceptional circumstances for undergraduate students working in a university laboratory to build tight bonds with others all over the country, and SACNAS seems to fill that role. (In my lab, that role is filled with an even higher quality experience, working at La Selva Biological Station. Which is probably why I haven’t thought much about sending my lab members to SACNAS.)

I noticed that though many of the students came from regional comprehensive universities, they often did their research projects away from their own institutions. They were involved with a summer REU, or a local research institute, or at some field site with a mentor from a different institutional affiliation. And their PIs were not at the meeting. I found this discouraging. I find it wonderful that students are able to be paired up with opportunities at other institutions, but I am despaired that these opportunities are not adequately available at our own institutions. This is no real surprise, but that doesn’t make it any less of a bummer. For instance, most of the students from my university over the years who have attended SACNAS have conducted their research in a nearby medical research center, under the supervision of PIs who don’t work for our university. Last year, I myself was pleased to hook two students up with a colleague at a research institution across the country, as our capacity to provide opportunities to students interested in ecology & evolution is maxed out. Even if we quadrupled our faculty, we wouldn’t be able to provide the opportunities that our students deserve. So it seems to me that SACNAS is filled with students who don’t have a thriving research community in their own institutions, who can benefit greatly from spending time with a welcoming group of scientists who have thrived while overcoming shared challenges.

Here’s an interesting thing that I learned from listening to talks about career trajectories, as well talking with some faculty. I met several people who landed tenure-track positions in the exact city they most wanted to live. In some of these cases, the faculty members were recruited. What this tells me — and I’m open to being shown that I am wrong — is that universities are experiencing an extremely high demand for scientists from underrepresented minorities. Much of the professional development sessions at SACNAS weren’t about how to get your foot in the door, but about what to do once your foot is in the door. I find this encouraging, because it means that talented scientists are getting their feet into the door.

The organizers of SACNAS have ribbon mania. You know how some conferences affix little ribbons to the bottom of your badge? They’ve got so many kinds. Life member. Mentor. Presenter. First-time attendee. Honoree. I stopped reading them pretty quickly. There was a poission distribution of ribbons per person, with a max of 5 or 6, and probably a mode of 2. (I had just one.) Some people bore veritable rainbows of experience and distinction. I understand that the ribbons are supposed to communicate useful information. I also imagine that for students new to the conference, they might take the number of ribbons to be a signal of importance and experience with the organization. I don’t know if this helps or hurts the mission of the meeting.

I was surprised by the huge extent of the networking meat market. People always say the meeting is “good for networking.” (I am generally uncomfortable with the notion that we should deliberately seek out relationships with people with the primary goal of using those relationships to further our own ends. I don’t ever try to “network.” I do try to build relationships, make friends, build collaborations, get to know people, and try to help students. I guess that’s what networking is, but the label has negative connections for me.) Of course, I realize, this is what careerist people do and it is one way to build a successful career. Clearly, people who know one another from SACNAS are willing to go to great lengths to support one another in their career endeavors, because of the shared affiliation with the conference. I’ve seen plenty of this within my own institution. But that’s not the networking I am referring to at SACNAS. The “networking” I’m talking about is the humongous array of exhibitors, that are out in force with a strong motivation to recruit students from underrepresented groups for their organizations. So many major research universities had booths with multiple staff, higher quality swag, and prepared to provide opportunities to talented and worthy students. If you check in with these booths, and express an interest, they take note, pass on your information, and then follow up. I imagine this could result in some serious opportunities.

In addition to universities, there was pretty much every US government agency I’ve ever heard of. (I heard that the CIA had sponsored the wireless coverage for the meeting. Hmmm.) Even though there were almost no ecology and environmental biology students at the meeting, there were organizations like NOAA, NCAR, NEON and OTS. These people were there with a genuine interest in recruiting underrepresented groups into the enterprise of science. So if you’re a PhD student or postdoc looking for a job, then man, oh man, this meeting should be filled with opportunity. If you’re applying to a grad program, then this meeting might help, if only by getting a fee waiver and maybe one or two friendly back-channel words. You still have to be good and qualified, of course, but if you’re good, qualified and a member of an underrepresented group, then it’s clear that the biggest tangible benefit of SACNAS is the exhibitor room at SACNAS. And all the free logo-emblazoned pens you could ever want. If you’re curious about whether organizations value the importance of diversity in their institutions, then you will see firsthand that they invest at least more than a slight token contribution.

If you have money to send students to just one conference, which one should it be? That’s a hard call, and depends on your circumstance. If your students don’t feel as if they belong in science as much as you feel they should, then clearly SACNAS can help create that sense of belonging. If students are seeking to connect with people who are trying hard to provide opportunities to students from underrepresented groups, then SACNAS can definitely deliver on that one. If your students want to feel as if their particular scientific interests are shared with other scientists, then SACNAS is not the best place. But that’s okay, that’s what other conventions are for.

3 thoughts on “Conference report: SACNAS

  1. To amplify on the vibe at ESA compared to SACNAS, it’s not so much that people are hyper-stressed at ESA, but more than people seemed (to me) to be a lot more comfortable at SACNAS. Then again, I think the stakes for grad students at ESA might be perceived to be higher than for the mostly-undergrads at SACNAS. The students are presenting the results of a longer-term project with a greater personal investment, and are going to have their talks seen by many specialists in their subfield, and have the potential for sponsoring a postdoc, and will be reviewing papers and grants and serving on search committees. The undergrads at SACNAS also are among people who may influence their professional trajectory, but in a more diffuse fashion and the audience is there with the purpose of being supportive, rather than an audience designed to advance science, and not necessarily in a way that is uniformly supportive of students.

  2. Terry, thanks for this great report on the SACNAS meeting. When a minority gets to SACNAS and you see such a diverse group, it just puts us at ease. What I really love is when everyone at the meeting picks that vibe up. That is where we need to get. I really don’t think that most faculty have an idea of the difference a little diversity can make. It was great for you to come to the meeting! One of my former students there was an entomologist from KU!

    We haven’t managed to diversify any occupation that requires a higher ed degree. We have some ideas about why this is so, but I’m sure we don’t know the whole answer. But having great people like you come to SACNAS and see how it could be with everyone together, loving science – that is important for all of us. Diversity isn’t that one group wins, it’s that everyone gets a chance to play. Thank you! Maggie WW, SACNAS President.

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