Diversity: STScI's Introduction to SACNAS

J. Medina (jmedina[at]stsci.edu)


The Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) hosts an annual conference for underrepresented members of the STEM community to meet, share their work, and provide a sense of support for one another. The conference hosts various professional development sessions and workshops on both technical and non-technical topics, with many of the non-technical topics bringing awareness to the benefits of diversity and intersectionality in STEM. SACNAS also provides networking opportunities to all attendees through social gatherings, workshops, and the exposition hall booths and poster presentations. In 2018, Space Telescope Science Institute held its first booth in the SACNAS exposition hall, where students and professionals were able to learn more about the institute and its career opportunities. SACNAS's mission of promoting diversity and inclusion parallels with the initiatives being taken at the institute, and attending the annual SACNAS conference is a great opportunity to reach out to a diverse pool of professionals from all areas of STEM with the skills to further enrich the STScI community.

STScI's first SACNAS

The Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) is an organization designed to help underrepresented groups in STEM further their education and advance in their careers. The annual SACNAS conference contributes to this mission by providing attendees in all career levels an opportunity to connect and share their research, and 2018 marked the first year that STScI was in attendance. 

The 2018 SACNAS conference was held mid-October in San Antonio, Texas, and became their most-attended national conference to date—gathering over 4,200 professionals of all career levels to celebrate the organization’s 45th anniversary. The conference spanned three days, with the first day of the conference being kicked off by an opening keynote address from the first Hispanic woman in space and former Director of NASA Johnson Space Center, Dr. Ellen Ochoa (Figure 1, left). 

Dr. Ellen Ochoa ans the STScI booth
Figure 1: (Left) Dr. Ellen Ochoa during the SACNAS 2018 Opening Keynote Address. Image Credit: SACNAS.  (Right) The Space Telescope Science Institute booth in the SACNAS Exposition Hall.

Each day's itinerary was populated with networking receptions, professional development sessions, and scientific symposia sessions on a variety of topics ranging from machine learning to conservation biology. Many of the professional development sessions were on soft skill topics relevant to today's work climate, such as the benefits of intersectionality in the workplace. 

In the conference's Expo Hall, attendees were able to share their research and connect with institutions from all over the nation. The hall was open most of the day for all three days, and was filled with over 1,000 research posters in every STEM discipline. On the other side of the hall was the Exhibitors' section, where the institute held a booth (Figure 1, right) alongside Google, the National Security Agency, and many other employers and universities looking to recruit new talent from a diverse pool of professionals. 

The Luncheon Plenary Session was held on the second day of the conference with the three featured speakers—Dr. Lauren Esposito, Dr. Kat Milligan-Myhre, and Ed Yong—all sharing inspiring stories about their careers. Later in the evening, SACNAS held the annual Pow Wow, a Native American social gathering that involves music, dancing, and other live performances (Figure 2). Attendees were able to participate in several of the dances, which helped make this event a memorable experience. 

Pow Wow
Figure 2: The annual Pow Wow hosted by SACNAS. Image Credit: Blair Porterfield.

The Influence of Culture in Our Work

What made this conference unique was its celebration of culture. Many of the professional development sessions highlighted the influence of culture in our work: how someone's background can provide them with a lens through which they can look at a problem, and offer a new perspective. One of the attendees, Lauren Chambers, noted this when saying "As a researcher interested in the culture of science, SACNAS showed me how rich the intersection is between our work and our identities. I love the sessions about how Native American scientists enrich and improve their science by integrating indigenous values and perspectives into how they ask questions and perform analysis."

Diversity and creativity in the workplace go hand-in-hand, as a more diverse community allows for different perspectives of the same problem, and different ways of approaching a solution. Diversity in the workplace also encourages open-mindedness, as people become more exposed to philosophies and ways of thinking that are far from their own. SACNAS spreads this message clearly throughout the conference: through its professional development sessions and workshops, it teaches individuals to embrace what makes them unique, and how these qualities can be an asset in the workforce. By attending SACNAS, the institute was able to reach this audience of students and professionals from every STEM field who might have otherwise gone unnoticed.

Cultivating a Community

One of the motivations behind these annual conferences is to cultivate a community among underrepresented groups in STEM where friendships and mentee/mentor relationships can develop. In between the professional development and science sessions, there were receptions for groups such as LGBTQ+ (Figure 3), Native Community, and Women in STEM, providing an opportunity for people in these communities to connect. These kinds of social gatherings have the potential to enrich one's experience at SACNAS, as expressed by SACNAS attendee and symposium moderator, Dr. Nicole Cabrera Salazar: "As a professional, I learned that connecting genuinely with junior scientists of color, even for just a few minutes, can have a significant positive impact."

Figure 3: LGBTQ+. Image Credit: SACNAS.

Celebrating Our Differences

Overall, STScI's introduction to SACNAS was eye-opening. There were many aspects of this conference that parallel with the initiatives being taken at the institute. Sheryl Bruff summarized the experience nicely when explaining her major takeaways from attending the conference: "First, the attendees were talented and enthusiastic, able to tell their stories and promote their expertise with ease. Second, the content of the conference—the sessions, keynote speakers, etc.—was timely, intriguing, and useful. The overall atmosphere of the conference was one of the best I have experienced."

Through the multicultural celebrations and diverse set of speakers and presentations, this conference sent a powerful message which was to not only accept people's differences, but rather to celebrate them. Moving forward, I know there are things we can continue to learn from this organization, and others like it.