A student-centered academic conference


The national SACNAS conference came through LA again. SACNAS is an organization that fosters diversity in higher education and runs a huge national conference each year. The organization does other things, but the national conference is clearly a focal point.

SACNAS has been described as a “mentoring conference.” From what I’ve seen, that’s a good description. There is no shortage of actual science — from astronomy to ecology to biochemistry to other stuff — but there is not going to be a ton of science in your own speciality. The focus of the meeting is to prepare students to succeed in careers in science. Undergrads tend to give posters on their research and grad students tend to give talks. And there are a lot of panels and symposia about navigating your path over and around the may obstacles that are placed in front of minority scientists.

For students who don’t have the cultural knowledge to navigate their way through academia, this conference does its absolute best to provide students of color with the career and social support they need to advance in the primarily white world of STEM in America. As much as is possible can do in a few days.

I went to my first SACNAS meeting a couple years ago, when they were in LA. I was really impressed with what happens there.

This was my second SACNAS. Before I headed over to the meeting, I had an unplanned encounter with SACNAS tours of the LA County Natural History Museum Entomology collection (where I’m a research associate during my sabbatical). I went to the meeting and caught a few talks, chatted with a lot of students in the poster session, visited many of the tables of exhibitors, and joined the “Entomology” table in the “Converse with a scientist” evening session (which turned out to be a chat with people interested in animal behavior including a few experienced grad students and an undergrad). Due to limited availability, I was only at SACNAS for that one day, so I missed some great sessions. Oh well. There were a lot of cool people who I internet-know who I didn’t get a chance to meet. Alas.

There were a bunch of things that I noticed or thought about while I was at the meeting that I thought would be interesting to share.

  • Registration for the meeting is hundreds of dollars for students. But if you’re at the stage where you’re planning to apply to several professional or graduate programs, then this conference can save money and/or trouble. It appears that most programs are handing out application fee waivers out like candy. In theory, if you qualify for a fee waiver you could get one by applying through other means, but getting one at SACNAS appears to be as easy as just asking for one, at least for some places.
  • I bumped into a variety of people I know. What I found really weird is that at least a few of them asked, “What are you doing here?” Huh? What do they mean by that? Why wouldn’t I be there? I think that says more about the perspective of the person asking the question than it does about myself. I’m there because it’s an academic conference supporting diversity in science, and I’m an academic supporting diversity in science. It seems like a normal fit to me.
  • While my interests are well aligned with SACNAS, I am not well aligned as an individual. Because of shared personal experiences, this meeting has a tightly knit community of “Sacnistas.” I feel welcome and people are wonderful, and if I wanted to invest the time into becoming a Sacnista, I imagine I’d be accepted just fine. Regardless, for anybody who wants to learn how to make things better for their students, SACNAS is there for us.
  • This tightly knit community isn’t there for me — it’s there to build a future for junior scientists from underrepresented minorities. While I don’t get immediately embraced like a Sacnista, that’s not the point. The students are readily accepted, and encouraged, and advised, and supported. They are celebrated. This community is there for students, it’s their reason to exist. For students who come to this meeting feeling like their own university doesn’t support their professional ambitions to become a scientist, SACNAS lets them know that they actually do belong, and that there are many people who have paved that road ahead of them, and that they have a large community that knows they can succeed and is rooting for them. If an undergraduate showed up at some other scientific conferences without a clear support network, then they could very well leave thinking that they don’t belong. SACNAS is the opposite of that.
  • Spending time where you don’t fit in by default is a valuable opportunity for people of my demographic background. It can give you an idea what it’s like for underrepresented minority students and colleagues on a daily basis. At work, I regularly have times where I’m one of the few white guys in the room, but I think there are a lot of my colleagues from other institutions that haven’t had such an opportunity. At SACNAS, I’m in the presence of many experts who are trained in mentoring and supporting minority students and are doing this as a full-time job, and many more who have much more experience than I do. So this was a good opportunity for me to learn.
  • While chatting with grad students and postdocs, I noticed that many had an official “exhibitor” badge on their name tags. I asked a few, what’s up with that? And here’s the answer I always got, paraphrased: “I’m here to represent my university at the table. I’m the one that my university sent. They paid up for a table, and are paying my expenses, so I’m the one who gets to come.” I think it’s nice that universities are paying to send postdocs and grad students, but I think this is all kinds of messed up. I was chatting up one grad student from a primarily white public research university. This campus has more than 5000 faculty members and an endowment of several billion dollars. And to represent the campus, they send a grad student. The student was experienced and knowledgable, and could ably represent the minority experience as a grad student on campus. But also, it’s clear that the campus was totally just phoning it in. I can see it now, some administrator saying, “We have to have a table at SACNAS because that shows we are committed to diversity!” but then they actually don’t bother actually to go themselves, or to send any faculty members. There were some organizations that were out there in force, including the Cal State System, NSF, a couple UC campuses, the CIA, Harvard, USC, and a bunch of others. I can understand that some universities don’t mount a big presence because they lack the budget. But when they are sending students to the meeting in the stead of faculty and administrators, instead of at the side of them, then we know where people really put their priorities. If you really care about recruiting students from underrepresented backgrounds, you don’t pay a few thousands bucks to send someone, you need to go and personally listen and recruit.
  • NSF had many program directors on site, and a whole table just for recruiting students to apply for graduate fellowships that had a steady string of customers. I had a nice longish conversation with them about minority students, underfunded public universities and the GRFP program (and I hope to continue this conversation when I’m in DC in a couple weeks). I’ll be writing more about this. (As always, I’m convinced that NSF is committed to diversifying our scientific workforce, and we as a community need to engage with them to help them make this happen.)
  • The first time I went, there was barely anything in the fields of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. This time, things have changed. There were a *ton* of posters from students who did eco/evo projects. The poster session was only 2.5 hours long or so if I recall correctly, and I could have spent the whole day just chatting up these students about their work. And, the quality of the work was very high, equivalent to what I’d expect of student posters at a disciplinary conference. Which comes as zero surprise to me, but I thought I’d mention that rather than leave it out.
  • I met a lot of undergraduates who didn’t have their mentors at the meeting. Most often, it was students who signed up for REU experiences at some distant institution. They went away for the summer and did a great project with a grad student or faculty member, and then they created their poster after the program finished and brought it to SACNAS. A summer research experience is not an adequate substitute for a integrative mentoring experience. It must be nice for students to be able to attend SACNAS, but the current system of airlifting students at primarily undergraduate institutions to get research experiences at other places has some huge drawbacks, and I wish we were talking more about this kind of thing. I don’t think we should expect all REU mentors to commit to attending SACNAS. If we produce a real link between the student’s home institution and the one where they are doing research could go a long ways toward improving the pipeline subway.

4 thoughts on “A student-centered academic conference

  1. Terry,

    I saw a few tweets of yours and was happy to see you attended SACNAS. I kept an eye out for you but never had the chance to shake hands.

    I do want to clarify a bit on your post: travel scholarships to SACNAS are the most comprehensive I’ve seen. I am currently a graduate student, but have attended twice as an undergraduate. The travel award includes conference registration, lodging (this year at the Hyatt Regency) AND airfare. That worked out to about ~$2000 of support this year. The range of support is broad as well- over 400 students were there on the travel scholarship. I do understand that not every student has access to that, especially students that are without faculty mentorship at smaller campuses/community colleges. It isn’t perfect- but I know that this has been something that the SACNAS board has spent time addressing.

    During the final award ceremony, the outgoing SACNAS president Gabe Montaño honored his three white male mentors for their role in his success (emphasis on white and male). SACNAS is a space where minority students can celebrate cultural and religious identity while simultaneously wearing their STEM hat. We honor and celebrate our pioneering mentors that come from similar backgrounds. But that doesn’t discount our value for mentors that don’t look exactly like us. You have shown yourself to be a remarkable mentor that actively seeks to understand and combat the factors limiting minority access to STEM careers. So it is my hope that you feel a part of our family during future meetings.

  2. Michael, thanks. I just want to emphasize that I do feel welcome. But as you say, SACNAS is a family, and that kind of thing doesn’t emerge overnight. I guess I do feel like family, but one of those cousins that only shows up at thanksgiving once every five years. And I am reassured that if I invest the time, then I’d be a bigger part of the family.

  3. Thanks, Terry, for writing about SACNAS, and for helping express, from your perspective, what the conference is. I encourage you to come out to Utah next year and spend the full conference with us (clear out your calendar NOW!) and get closer to the family. I hope to meet you there in person. My Best, Lino Gonzalez (SACNAS president-elect; lino@sacnas.org).

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