Last month, Valeria Martinez-Kaigi engaged in an annual tradition: attending the meeting of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). Since 2004, when she was an undergraduate studying psychology at the University of New Mexico, Martinez-Kaigi, who is now a doctoral student in clinical psychology at the University of North Texas in Denton, has attended the conference every year that she has been able. She credits the mentoring she has received at past meetings with aiding her career success, and this year she began paying it forward by speaking on a panel about creating and maintaining SACNAS chapters and providing counsel to an undergraduate student who had been dreading applying to graduate school and medical school.
For 42 years, SACNAS has pushed to increase the number of Native Americans and Hispanics in the sciences. But for the society and its more than 6000 active members, or SACNISTAS, as members and affiliates call themselves, it's about more than just the numbers; it's about affirming a sense of cultural identity and community. “SACNAS is not just a conference, but a place where students can connect with people on the personal level and leave with the confidence they need to continue their academic and professional goals,” Martinez-Kaigi says.
SACNAS is not just a conference, but a place where students can connect with people on the personal level and leave with the confidence they need to continue their academic and professional goals.
From the mouths of elders
At the “It Takes a Pueblo” workshop, mentoring was the topic of the hour. When identifying potential mentors, trainees should not limit themselves to their principal investigators (PIs) or academic advisers, advised session co-chair Dina Myers Stroud, a research assistant professor in the physics department at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and the executive director of the Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s-to-Ph.D. Bridge Program. Students should develop a mentoring network, because no one person can fulfill someone's mentoring needs, she said. For example, additional mentors can be professors who are familiar with your work, or even peers. And although some mentoring relationships come about naturally, others require effort, Stroud added. When pursuing a mentor, present yourself professionally by using formal, respectful language in emails and setting your social media pages to private, with the exception of LinkedIn, she counseled.
To make sure students get the mentorship they need, J. Marcela Hernandez, the workshop’s other co-chair and the graduate and STEM diversity director at the Ohio State University College of Arts and Sciences in Columbus, told students that, when choosing a graduate lab, the science should be secondary to considerations about whether the PI will make a good mentor. “Your graduate work doesn't dictate your professional work for the rest of your life,” she said—but your relationship with your PI might. The best way to gauge if a mentor is a good match is by talking to the graduate students currently in the lab, Hernandez added.
But to get to the point where you’re choosing a graduate PI mentor, you have to first be accepted into a graduate school. Applying to doctorate programs was the focus of the “Get Ready for Your PhD!” workshop. “The Ph.D. is really the door to a career in science,” whether in policy, journalism, industry, government, or academia, said session co-chair Victoria Freedman, associate dean for graduate programs in biomedical sciences at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. So how does one get there? Besides grades and GRE (or Graduate Record Examination) scores, research experience is crucial to admission, the panelists agreed. Moreover, it’s important that you’re not just going through the motions in the lab, they emphasized. Your personal statement should show that you understand the overarching scientific question, your part of the research, and others’ roles as well, the panelists explained. “Don't pretend you did all the work,” Freedman added.
The speakers at the “A Great Interview” workshop also offered strategies for prospective doctoral candidates looking to shore up their credentials. Suggestions included taking graduate courses as an undergraduate, working as a technician or an assistant in a research lab, entering a master’s program, or pursuing the opportunity to participate in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program, which provides preparation for graduate courses; reading science papers; and taking the GRE.
This year’s conference was held in the Washington, D.C., area for the first time since 1998 so that the Santa Cruz, California-based organization could showcase its SACNISTAS to federal agencies and organizations. Being in the nation's capital made it easier for representatives from federal agencies— including the National Security Agency (NSA), Central Intelligence Agency, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency—to attend the conference and recruit talent, and student SACNISTAS had the opportunity to visit some of the agencies, including the NSA and NIH. “The idea was to create awareness on both ends,” said SACNAS Executive Director Antonia Franco.
SACNAS President Gabriel Montaño, who is also a Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist, hopes the exposure will encourage some SACNISTAS to consider working for the federal government. AAAS Chief Executive Officer Rush Holt, who spent eight terms representing New Jersey in the U.S. House of Representatives, took the pitch a step further, suggesting at a plenary session that more scientists should run for office to help stem the tide of unscientific and at times antiscientific thinking around various topics, including climate change, evolution, and vaccination.
That push was not lost on student attendees. Ariana Bravo, a Ph.D. student in microbiology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who plans to defend her thesis within the next year, is seeking a career in the federal government, but was unsure how to go about it. While at the conference, though, she had the opportunity to visit the White House, where she got advice from John Holdren, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and other OSTP members. She was impressed with their passion about promoting science and changing policy within the federal government. “The idea that I could have such a broad impact convinced me that this is my first career choice,” she says.