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Perspectives: 2003 SACNAS National Conference

Editor's note: MiSciNet editor Robin Arnette gives her first-person and first-time impressions of this year's annual meeting of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). Next week, MiSciNet will feature another report from a SACNAS conference participant.

Flying over the endless red earth toward Albuquerque International Sunport, I can't help but think about the history of this land and its people. Thousands of ancient Native Americans created cities and a way of life that produced harmony between man and nature. Despite the European conquest of the "New World" and the disruption of this sacred balance, strong cultural ties have survived and continue to flourish among the indigenous population. Whether you are descended from peoples of North, Central, or South America or speak English, Spanish, or Portuguese, you represent a continuum that the 30th anniversary of SACNAS proudly celebrates. I thoroughly enjoyed the conference because it taught me about Native American culture and the inclusiveness that SACNAS promotes.

The purpose of the national SACNAS meeting was to connect students and professionals and promote diversity within the scientific community. With its many speakers, workshops, and events everyone found something of interest and came away from the meeting better informed and excited about future opportunities for scientists of color.

The meeting took place in Albuquerque, New Mexico, 2 to 5 October 2003. The theme for this year, "30 Years at the Crossroads: Merging Disciplines and Advancing Diversity," seemed to fit the atmosphere perfectly. Students and professionals from a variety of disciplines including education, mathematics, geosciences, and computer science, just to name a few, exchanged ideas and information, while people from all backgrounds and ethnicities intermingled and discussed ways to improve the numbers of underrepresented minorities in the sciences. Everyone seemed committed to this purpose, so I felt right at home.

As a first-time SACNAS conference participant, I was unaware of how things were done, but I quickly realized the importance of spirituality at the conference. During the Native American blessing at the official opening of the meeting, many in the audience stood up in reverence. I did too out of respect for the elder performing the blessing, Mr. Joseph D. Chavez, and in honor of those who have gone on before us.

Following the blessing and welcome address by SACNAS President Luis Haro, professor of biochemistry at the University of Texas, San Antonio, William Velez, University Distinguished Professor of Mathematics at the University of Arizona, presented the keynote address and thrilled the audience with a video detailing the history of SACNAS. He explained that the organization has grown over the years with 225 attendees at the first SACNAS meeting in 1978 to over 2000 participants in 2002. Dr. Velez challenged the audience to continue making a difference in the world of science for people of color by saying, "SACNAS is a song of change. We're not asking you to change the world, just your little part of it."

The SACNAS meeting allowed undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to showcase their research in the form of posters or oral presentations. For many, this meeting was the first public presentation of their work. The few that I talked to were a little nervous. Of course they were nervous! We all can remember how overwhelming it was explaining the intricacies of our experiments to experts in the field. Even other students frightened us because of all the potential questions they could ask. Well, giving talks is like riding a bicycle. Once we learn how, we never really forget. Each presentation gets easier as we continue to hone our skills.

The event featured mentoring workshops, recognizing the importance of mentors in the development of any scientist, but especially for scientists of color. The conference program included professional development sessions, covering nuts-and-bolts topics such as graduate fellowships and opportunities in mathematical sciences. The professional development sessions also addressed balancing home, work, and culture, a topic of central concern to many SACNAS members.

The social activities allowed everyone to relax and have fun. The SACNAS Pow Wow and dance (Pachanga) were fantastic! They both brought the excitement of dance as a form of expression and perfectly contrasted traditional and modern music. Personally, I had only attended one other Pow Wow in my life, but I had so much fun that I decided to frequent as many as I could. Pow Wows, in general, have traditionally brought Native Americans together for celebrations and dancing, but because of the SACNAS commitment to diversity, anyone in the audience could join in and take part. This fellowship strengthened our bond as human beings and encouraged a sense of "family" for all of us.

If you enjoyed reading about my 2003 SACNAS experience, you should also read about the events at the 2002 SACNAS Conference by Dr. Sibrina Collins.The 2004 SACNAS Conference will be held 21 to 24 October 2004 in Austin, Texas, with online registration beginning 1 February 2004.

Robin Arnette, Ph.D., is editor of MiSciNet and can be reached by e-mail at