SACNAS Conference Promotes ‘Celebration, not Assimilation’ for Students With Diverse Backgrounds
By Laura Wagner
While professional conferences for STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math) typically focus on STEM research, there’s one conference that focuses primarily on students: SACNAS (Advancing Chicanos/Hispanics & Native Americans in Science).
Last fall, UHD Natural Sciences faculty Drs. Lisa Morano and Yuan Yuan (Connie) Kang traveled with nine UHD students to give them the extraordinary experience the conference offers. Two of the students won category awards: Senior Evelyn Martinez, a Biological and Physical Sciences major, won for her poster on sustainable food production, and Ella Wasel (Biology, ’23) won for her neuroscience presentation.
“The focus of this conference is empowering students,” said Morano, Professor of Biology & Microbiology and Director of the Center for Urban Agriculture and Sustainability. “Those who can explain what they’re doing and do it well seem to win. The judges are looking for passion.”
Kang, Associate Professor of Natural Sciences, said the focus on students is what sets SACNAS apart. “Other conferences include undergraduate presentations, but the bulk of the conferences are focused very much on the science,” she noted. “With SACNAS, the mission is to support students and make them value their authentic selves.”
They do this not just through the programming, but through the speakers, Kang explained. “Each speaker starts with their personal journey, how they grew up, their challenges—that empowers students, because they see themselves represented.” For that reason, she believes, UHD students should try to attend SACNAS above all other conferences. “The transformation so many students have experienced after attending makes this conference particularly worthwhile,” she said.
Morano agrees. “SACNAS’ mission is to empower Native American and Hispanic students to pursue STEM careers,” she said. Guest speakers at SACNAS are all top scientists with Hispanic or Native American origins.
The conference makes a point of supporting cultural competencies and helping students understand how to use them, Morano noted. “The message is that being bilingual and crossing two cultures are both enormous assets. Don’t hide it, embrace it. The conference programming tries to help change the students’ mindset from ‘fitting in’ to celebrating and promoting who they are.”
Cultural events are woven throughout the conference, and students presenting posters are encouraged to wear attire from their culture that’s significant to them. “That doesn’t happen at a lot of conferences,” Morano said.
SACNAS offered a “vendor fair” typical of most conferences, where attendees have the opportunity to visit with vendors at their booths, including representatives of graduate schools that support undergraduates at all levels. “They actually ask the students to apply and tell them how much they want them and how much financial support they can offer. People are just not aware of all the money that’s out there to support these students,” Kang said. “As a Hispanic-Serving Institution, UHD should make sure students have a chance to attend this conference and access those resources.”
One of Morano’s students had two different recruiters recommend she apply to graduate school after seeing her research—and as a result, she’s planning to. “Never mind that I had recommended grad school for her,” Morano laughed. “That third-party validation is the kind of thing that’s so helpful at an undergraduate-focused conference.”
Hispanic and STEM representation at SACNAS is high, but everyone is welcome, Morano said. “I have a business student and an art student who were both working with me on a sustainable energy project, and they felt completely welcomed and comfortable at the conference. There’s something for everyone.”
The Student Perspective
Biology senior Caitlyn Stewart gave the conference high marks. “I was excited but also slightly intimidated because I had never been to such a large conference before,” she said. “I was surprised at the outpouring of encouragement and uplifting feedback from all my fellow students, teachers, and research professionals. The personal stories from speakers who came from diverse backgrounds and overcame so many obstacles to be leaders in their fields were truly inspiring.”
She noted the benefits of the vendor fair, which offered her ideas on graduate and medical schools she hadn’t previously considered, and applauded the conference sessions that shared practical skills. “I learned so much about how to improve my research, improve my applications for future conferences and graduate school, and I was able to talk to professionals in the fields I’m interested in.”
To get the most of the conference experience, Stewart recommends students attend additional presentations throughout the day. “Choose things that truly interest you and from which you can benefit. Meet as many people as possible, exchange information, and reach out with questions regarding professional or academic goals. There are so many amazing people there to help students and give them the resources and information they need to be successful.”
Martinez noted her surprise at the quality of entities that were recruiting at the conference. “Attending this conference can be eye-opening and mind-opening and can most definitely influence your future decisions for the better.” She recommended focusing on the benefits of being surrounded by like-minded science lovers, and keeping nerves in check for those presenting. “Have fun with what you are doing! Try to view everyone you meet as your science buddies. Conduct yourself with enthusiasm, be proud of what you are presenting (no matter how simple it may seem in your eyes compared to the work of others), and conduct yourself with professionalism because you never know who you may be presenting to or who may be watching. Make sure to take full advantage of the opportunities offered at the conference!”
For her part, Wasel shared a valuable lesson for future researchers: “I learned how to present my work to people who don’t know anything about it. When you get involved in research, you can become so consumed with it that it’s like second nature to you, and you forget that even the most basic concepts may seem foreign to an outsider. Presenting at a conference helps you break down the science into something that’s understandable and interesting to others.”
Her recommendations to future attendees echoed Stewart’s: “Network as much as possible. Go around and introduce yourself to people, ask questions, make yourself memorable. You will meet so many people who are doing such cool things! And try to do well presenting, you’ll be surprised how encouraging everyone is.”
SACNAS at UHD
Both Kang and Morano are hoping UHD students will start a SACNAS chapter at UHD. “It’s something that’s been in the works for a long time by Dr. Mary Jo Parker, Executive Director of the Scholars Academy, and there are several faculty who are ready to serve as advisors,” Kang said. “I think having our own chapter can lead to some long-lasting changes, not just for the students who go but for the student population on campus who get to be members of this organization.”
An important aspect of SACNAS is the funding it provides for students to pay for the entrance fee and travel expenses. UHD supported some students with funds, but one student applied for a travel award through SACNAS and received it. Dr. Elda Rueda, Assistant Professor of Biochemistry, serves on the SACNAS Travel Award Committee, and recommends students apply even if they aren’t presenting a poster, because money is typically available.
Both Kang and Morano advise students to attend any conference their faculty recommend to them. “It can change the direction of your life,” Morano said. “Even if you have to miss work or school, it’s worth it. Once you see yourself as a scientist at an academic meeting, it changes your view of yourself from being a student to being a scholar, a professional. And you meet so many people who can help you in your future career. Students often underestimate the importance of connections.”
But if they can only attend a single conference, the professors recommend SACNAS. Kang summed it up: “This is the most diverse conference there is, so it aligns well with our student body. If you have to choose a conference to go to, this is the one.”
Students interested in finding out more about SACNAS or other Natural Sciences conferences should talk to their professors and visit the SACNAS website.
The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) is the second-largest university in Houston and has served the educational needs of the nation’s fourth-largest city since 1974. As one of four distinct public universities in the University of Houston System, UHD is a comprehensive, four-year university led by President Loren J. Blanchard. Annually, UHD educates approximately 14,000 students, boasts more than 66,000 alumni, and offers 45 bachelor’s degrees, 12 master’s degrees, and 19 online programs within four colleges: Marilyn Davies College of Business, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Public Service, and College of Sciences and Technology. UHD has one of the lowest tuition rates in Texas.
U.S. News and World Report ranked UHD among the nation’s Best Online Bachelor’s Programs for Applied Administration and Best Online Master’s Programs in Criminal Justice, as well as a Top Performer in Social Mobility. The Wall Street Journal/College Pulse ranked UHD one of the best colleges in the U.S. for its 2024 rankings, with notable distinctions: No. 1 for diversity (tied) and No. 3 for student experience. The University is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a Minority-Serving Institution, and a Military Friendly School. For more information on the University of Houston-Downtown, visit uhd.edu.