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Return to Academia, Part 3: Rejoining the Conference Circuit

Last year when I attended national meetings, I did so as editor of MiSciNet. Now, I am returning to some familiar stomping grounds as an assistant professor. This is a monumental step for me because conferences provide such vital networking opportunities. This year, I plan to attend three conferences: those of the American Chemical Society ( ACS), the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers ( NOBCChE), and the South Carolina Academy of Science ( SCAS). I am attending the ACS and NOBCChE meetings because they are specifically targeted toward chemistry professionals like me. SCAS was established in 1924 "to promote the creation and dissemination of scientific knowledge within the state of South Carolina by stimulating scientific research and publication." Consequently, the SCAS meeting is a major scientific conference in that state, and as a scientist now located there, it makes sense to attend. In fact, two of my students will be presenting their work at the SCAS meeting, and I am truly excited because this will be my first opportunity to see my students formally presenting their research projects.

There's another reason for attending annual meetings, and that has to do with the scientific organizations that put them on. Working effectively with those organizations in the context of their meetings and otherwise can be extremely important in furthering an academic career. Here's how they've helped further mine.

Attending Scientific Meetings

There are several advantages to attending scientific meetings. Not only will you have the opportunity to learn about the latest developments in science and technology, but you can pick up some ideas that may help you develop your own research plans. Attend oral presentations and talk with scientists pursuing research in your area of interest. With some careful work, you may be able to develop some collaborations that will help expand your scope, obtain funding, and even publish in peer-reviewed journals. Securing funding and publishing are crucial for promotion and tenure. In addition, workshops and panel discussions focusing on funding resources are often held at national scientific meetings such as ACS and NOBCChE. Attend these sessions and take advantage of the opportunities they represent.

Thoughts of an Ex-Editor--The Numbers Game

Now that I am an assistant professor, I am trying harder than ever to understand why so few minorities pursue careers in academia. First, I recognize that the number of minorities who earn doctorates is small. During the 1999-2000 academic year, for instance, a total of 1236 Ph.D. chemistry doctorates were awarded to U.S. citizens and permanent residents. Only 4% of these degrees were earned by Hispanics, another 4% by Blacks, and only 1% by American Indians. These low numbers, some argue, inevitably lead to low numbers of faculty.

I recently asked two of my colleagues, both African Americans: "Do you think it is possible that many of us shun research careers in academia because we were not trained how to think innovatively and creatively?" One colleague replied, "I'm not sure we really understand what part creativity plays in a career in academia. I think money may be a bigger part--and the subjectivity of the tenure process." A second colleague stated, "Well, first, I do not think African Americans as a group shun research centers, it's the research institutions that shun us. This is because the hiring committees at the big universities assume we are not trained to be innovative or that a person of color is not capable of creative scientific thought. And they abhor criticism of the prevailing research practices. Another fact is that--in chemistry and physics particularly--most African Americans are on the faculties of [historically black colleges and universities]."

Obviously, the reasons behind the low numbers of minorities working in academia are complex. But it seems to me that the issue is not that there are too few minorities willing to become professors. The real problem is that most students (of all ethnic backgrounds) are turned off academic careers long before they complete their doctorates. These students often see the negative side of academia rather than the positive side. They see their professors working long hours, looking for funding, writing papers, teaching, and so on. Personally, I believe professors have to make more of an effort to show their students that a career in academia can be rewarding.

Involvement With Scientific Organizations

I have been a member of NOBCChE and ACS since my undergraduate and graduate school days, but within the past couple of years I have become more closely involved with both of them. For example, I am serving as chair of the NOBCChE public relations committee; I'm a member of the advisory board for Chemical & Engineering News (an ACS publication); and I have accepted an appointment with the ACS Committee on Minority Affairs. Finding the time and energy to participate in each of these activities is challenging, particularly on top of the teaching, research, and mentoring responsibilities that I have as a new professor. But these are rewarding experiences. They give me the opportunity to work with chemists from different places and with different backgrounds, yet with shared interests.

Both ACS and NOBCChE invite new initiatives from their members that further the goals of the organization. In my opinion, it is a good idea for early-career scientists to get more involved in these activities. For instance, during the past 2 years, a colleague and I have developed two workshops that were presented at the NOBCChE annual meeting targeted toward women chemists. As a result of these workshops, a listserv has been created for the professional women members of NOBCChE to discuss topics of interest such as careers and issues that women scientists face in the workplace. And I have begun to establish a new pool of mentors--people who are accessible for discussions on various topics such as mentoring and developing a research program. Moreover, committee service, like teaching and research, is among the factors that will be considered when I come up for tenure here at Claflin University.

Sibrina Collins was editor of MiSciNet from 2001 to 2002. She is now an assistant professor of chemistry at Claflin University in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Please e-mail her at

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