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SACNAS Is Love at First Sight

Editor's note: This story is the second report from the 2003 SACNAS conference, giving two first-time and first-person impressions of the event. Last week, Robin Arnette, Minority Scientists Network Editor, reported on the meeting.

"Have you ever fallen in love? That is how SACNAS feels." With this enchanting statement, Luis S. Haro, president of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), officially opened the 2003 SACNAS National Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico, held 2 to 5 October 2003. This was my first time attending this meeting and I welcomed his words with curiosity and intrigue. As a graduate student at the University of Oviedo, Spain, and as a postdoctoral fellow at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, I had the opportunity to attend many scientific conventions, but I never imagined that I would actually fall in love with one.

In his welcome address, Dr. Haro continued, "this year's theme [Thirty Years at the Crossroads: Merging Discipline and Advancing Diversity] reflects the unique and interdisciplinary, integrated perspective that minorities bring to science research and policy." He emphasized the need for the scientific community to echo the demographic reality of our rapidly changing society. Dr. Haro was correct for pointing out this challenge because according to the U.S. Census Bureau's projections for the American work force in the year 2025, the nation will experience substantial increases among minorities (U.S.-born Hispanics, 14 million; Hispanic immigrants, 8 million; Asian Americans, 8 million; African Americans, 7 million; Native Americans, 1 million). The numbers of white, non-Hispanic Americans in the work force is conversely expected to shrink by 5 million. Unfortunately, the pace at which minorities obtain higher education degrees still lags well behind the overall minority population growth. As Elsa Villa, director of engineering programs at the University of Texas, El Paso, stated, "the challenge goes faster than us."

The mission of SACNAS is to bridge this gap by encouraging Chicano/Latino and Native American students to pursue graduate degrees, which will launch their scientific careers. Each national conference is dedicated to helping students reach this goal by allowing them to showcase their research and sharpen their networking skills. Minority students often encounter serious obstacles to access higher education such as cultural constraints, poor English skills, fear of taking the Graduate Record Examination, fear of financial debt, lack of family support, and a lack of positive minority role models, among others. The annual SACNAS National Conference welcomes minority students with open arms and shows them that they do have a place in science. In addition, the meeting combines a host of valuable sessions including K-12 teacher workshops, keynote speaker addresses, countless student and mentor orientation sessions, and direct contact with university and research institute recruiters.

As a native Spanish speaker, I was quick to note the importance of sharing language and cultural references with regards to the strength of the student-mentor bond. One-by-one, Latino students "professionally" presented their posters in English, but then spontaneously switched to Spanish during the ensuing informal discussions. "Few people speak Spanish on my campus," said Felipe, a Colombian undergraduate student at the University of Kansas. "It makes such a difference."

In addition to language barriers, many students oftentimes struggle to simultaneously achieve success in their career choice while maintaining their cultural identity. Redwolf, a Shoshone student at Oregon State University, said, "The elders in my tribe are happy that the younger generation seeks higher education, but they are sad because we don't come back to the reservation." Redwolf is the first person in his family to pursue a graduate degree, but acknowledged, "we need career opportunities for those who want to go back home."

After attending the 4-day conference, I discovered that SACNAS is as much about science as it is about preparing the talented, multifaceted scientists of the 21st century. My experiences at this year's conference will definitely keep me coming back. I can now agree with Dr. Haro--SACNAS is truly love at first sight.

Belen Hurle, Ph.D., is a Research Fellow at the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and may be reached at