SACNAS as Sanctuary - Thoughts on the 2004 SACNAS National Conference

By Ivonne Vidal Pizarro, Ph.D.

When I attended my first SACNAS conference in 1993, during my junior year at Florida International University, there were about 800 attendees. I attended the 2004 SACNAS National Conference in Austin, Texas as a post-doctoral fellow. This year there were over 2,300 attendees. I think we’ve both come a long way.

What I’ve always like about SACNAS is that I do not feel alone as a Latina scientist. I see staff, teachers, undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, and faculty, at all levels, at SACNAS doing science. And, as L.L. Cool J. would say, “Doin’ it and doin’ it and doin’ it well.” There is great comfort in those numbers and I can go back to being one of a handful, knowing that there is a growing army—and more coming.

This year’s conference had some new programs, for example, the Minority Postdoc Summit, a pre-conference event to address the issues concerning postdoctoral training with the goal of providing a discussion forum for postdocs, funding organizations, and academic institutions. Drs. Alberto I. Roca, Arti Chiman Patel, and Juana Rudati, coordinated the summit with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Diversity Committee of the National Postdoctoral Association. In the opening remarks, they discussed the value of diversity in science, the demographics of minority postdocs, and the results of several recent postdoctoral surveys.

Dr. Shirley Malcolm, the head of the Directorate for Education and Human Resources Programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), was the keynote speaker. Dr. Malcolm gave a moving presentation about the difficulties of having a career, balancing it with family, surviving as the only minority, giving back to the community, and finding a place for self-renewal.

Following Dr. Malcolm’s keynote, there was a series of panel discussions, that informed postdocs of fellowships dedicated to diversity (United Negro College Fund-Merck, National Science Foundation, University of California’s Presidential Postdoctoral Fellowship, and the Ford Foundation), academic institutions championing diversity (Alliances for Graduate Education in the Professoriate-University of Texas at El Paso, National Consortium for Graduate Degrees for Minorities in Engineering and Science, and the Leadership Alliance), and funding organizations (National Research Council and various National Institutes of Health (NIH) institutes). There was also a professional developmental panel which discussed careers in academia and industry. It was enlightening and refreshing to see that there is a place for postdocs at the SACNAS table.

Hopefully there will be another SACNAS Conference Postdoc Event, where we might present our work and learn the nuts and bolts of a resume vs. CV as well as the technical details of grantwriting in a hands-on session. Perhaps, we’ll hear about other career alternatives such as public policy, administration, scientific writing, patent law, consulting, and starting up a biotech firm in addition to academia and industry.

On Thursday afternoon, I had a golden opportunity to meet out next president, Dr. Marigold Linton, at the Founder’s Reception. She’s a vivacious and enthusiastic woman, with an admirable no-nonsense style. I’m sure we’ll see great things during her tenure as SACNAS president. Next on my agenda was the welcome reception with two great storytellers, Lee Williams, Navajo Tribe Member, and Orlando Figueroa from NASA. Lee Williams’ blessing and telling of the coyote’s mischievous involvement in the Big Bang was a lovely segue into Mr. Figueroa’s keynote address. He spoke of childhood questions that continue to drive research in his field—where did we come from, are we alone in the universe, and what is life? These questions led to lively roundtable, “Conversations with Scientists” that led into mentoring intensive sessions. Kika Friend, Director of CAMP Programs at University of California at Irvine, led the graduate school workshop where students learned about GRE exam scores and GPA requirements, as well as organizations like Project 1000, which cover the GRE fee and provide fee waivers for graduate school applications. After she gave a comprehensive overview of what to expect in graduate school, the panelists, myself included, fielded questions from the audience. I realized that we needed male panelists as well speakers with young families while in graduate school, as we three childless, female panelists could not address those unique situations.

The graduate school mentoring workshop continued on the next morning and a broad range of scientific symposia followed shortly. I attended the session on mental health organized by Drs. Michael Sesma from the National Institute of Mental Health, and Joan Esnayra from the National Academies of Science. There was a well organized inclusive panel of speakers including Dr. Eddie Castaneda who spoke about animal models to study addiction, Dr. Ricardo Mendoza who spoke about human genetic studies to understand alcohol addiction among Chicanos, and Dr. Karina Walters, who described her research on urban Native American populations and addiction. Hers was a heroic effort to develop methods to qualitatively study historical trauma, which leads to post-traumatic stress disorder in subsequent generations, and microaggresssions—the onslaught of small but daily insults which become unbearable and destructive. She then correlated these findings with mental health issues and substance abuse. This panel exemplified research at different levels, from different scientists, and included two populations at the heart of SACNAS, Chicanos and Native Americans.

These professional scientists provide a model for students to follow when presenting their own work. SACNAS affords graduate students an opportunity to present their research work in a nurturing and supportive environment—a rare luxury at a professional conference. I first presented my research at the 1999 SACNAS conference and found it a very empowering experience. It was a chance for me to give members an insight into who I was as a scientists, not just as a graduate student. The same is true on a slightly different scale for undergraduate students presenting their research in a poster format. They present their work and answer questions, but they also get feedback and network on a much more personal level. This year there were 489 undergraduate poster presentations and 38 graduate oral presentations!

On Friday night, Dr. Peter Agre, the the 2003 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, gave the keynote address. The Nobel Laureate’s keynote addresses have always been a point of pride for me. Each SACNAS Conference has always had at least one Nobel Laureate address our members. As Lee Williams and Dr. Orlando Figueroa had done, Dr. Agre told a good story about his upbringing, about winning the Nobel Prize, and about his commitment to justice for incarcerated scientists. He spoke about the need of the scientific community to support one another, particularly in the face of political persecution.

Dr. Agre’s urging for community and social awareness was already reflected in the conference program, for following his speech was a women’s forum, a Native American talking circle and a meeting for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered SACNAS members. I had not realized how some of our members are marginalized even within SACNAS. SACNAS members are a small minority and to further alienate our own was dumbfounding. We still have much work to do.

Every night of the conference I would review my day and know that I had not scratched the surface of ALL that was going on at the SACNAS conference. But since I have not overcome the troublesome task of being in two or more places at once, I take solace in knowing that I have learned much, reacquainted old friendships, and made new ones. I have been renewed, in my SACNAS sanctuary, for I am the only Latina in my lab, in my department and in the post-doc program in the School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. But as Dr. Malcom encouraged us to, I am ready to go back to Philadelphia be “the only” one again. Palante! Siempre palante!

Ivonne Vidal Pizarro, Ph.D., is a Postdoctoral Research Scientist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the Fall 2004 issues of SACNAS News. This article is reprinted with the permission of SACNAS. A PDF version of this article can be downloaded here.

last updated 18-Jan-2005