By Paige Wilson
IMAGE: From left to right: Ruben Gonzalez, PhD, Dept. of Chemistry, Co-advisor; Sophie Lopez, CC - 4th year UG, Biological Sciences, Secretary; Pedro Gutierrez, GSAS - 5th year PhD, Biological Sciences, Treasurer; Krystell Santiago Estrella, SEAS - 2nd year UG, Biomed Eng & Applied Physics, Co-Administrative VP; Claudia Espinoza-Heredia, GSAS - 2nd year PhD, Psychology, Co-President
In October, two students from the Department of Biological Sciences attended the 2022 National Diversity in STEM (NDiSTEM) conference. The conference, which hosted over 6,000 attendees in San Juan, Puerto Rico, was organized by the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). SACNAS is the largest STEM diversity organization in the United States. Their mission is to foster the success of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans from college to professional careers, with the goal of diversifying the STEM workforce by providing underrepresented groups the support they need to obtain advanced degrees and leadership positions. It serves a growing community of almost 30,000 people and has over 130 chapters, including a newly established chapter at Columbia.
The Columbia chapter, which members are calling SACNAS+ to signify broader inclusivity among its members, was founded in 2021 and is nearing 100 members. The chapter’s board is made up of nine students, five graduate and four undergraduate. Pedro Gutierrez, a 5th year PhD student in the Tong Lab (and, full disclosure, a close friend of mine), is the chapter’s Treasurer. Dr. Martin Chalfie of Biological Sciences, Dr. Bianca Jones Marlin of Neuroscience, and Dr. Ruben Jr. Gonzalez of Chemistry serve as the chapter’s co-advisors. Membership is open to undergraduates, graduate students, post docs, post bacs, and lab members from all backgrounds. The chapter provides resources and support for underrepresented, first-generation, low-income individuals in STEM fields and is both a professional and social chapter.
In the short time since its founding, SACNAS+ has received funding from six Columbia STEM departments, including Biological Sciences. They have used these funds to help seven students attend national conferences and to host informational sessions, social events, and academic events, including open discussions on topics relevant to the experiences of underrepresented individuals in higher education. This spring, they are planning to start a regular newsletter, as well as host a trivia night, a resume workshop, and a Python crash course. They are also piloting a Big and Little mentorship program in which senior students mentor more junior students, helping them with everything from homework to applying for graduate school to finding an internship.
The Department of Biological Sciences funded SACNAS+ Treasurer, Pedro Gutierrez, to represent the department at one of the Columbia booths at this year’s NDiSTEM conference. I’ll admit, I’ve had some trouble not making this piece a love letter about my friend—he is one of the most brilliant, driven, and down-to-earth people I have ever met. I cannot think of a better representative for Columbia and our department. I asked him to tell me about the conference over a beer (or two) at Arts and Crafts, our usual haunt.
Pedro explained that the booths were set up to provide attendees with information about Columbia and to encourage more diverse students to apply. The Columbia GSAS booth was a hit, he said, because unlike other booths staffed only by administrators, our booth included graduate students and faculty. This was a big draw for conference-goers as it gave them a chance to ask questions better poised to students and faculty. He said they talked to people about the path to graduate school, what it’s like to live in New York City , and how to apply for post-doc positions. They also handed out application fee waivers for graduate programs in GSAS.
I was curious about the atmosphere and how it felt to be in such an inclusive environment. He said, “As a graduate student, it’s easy to get hyper-focused on your own work, but it was refreshing to get a broader view of work being done in STEM. It was nice to learn how other scientists are engaging with the world.”
What struck Pedro was how open and prideful the conference felt. Everyone was there to discuss science, and were able to do so as their most authentic selves, even down to their clothing. At the conference, professional attire took on a whole new definition. People were wearing professional outfits they felt best represented them, which included traditional attire, bold makeup, and sometimes gender nonconforming outfits–attire that wouldn’t ordinarily be seen at other STEM conferences where slacks, skirts, and blazers dominate.
The day after the conference the attendees had time to explore the area. They toured a historical fort, El Morro, built in 1539, and Pedro excitedly told me about how he got to step on one of the oldest roads in the Americas, the Calle de Cristo. The conference was held the weekend before Halloween, so when they went out at night they saw locals dressed up in festive costumes. He pulled out his phone to show me a video, smiling. It was a video of a goat walking down the street dressed as a bumblebee, his favorite costume of the weekend.
It was clear that Pedro both valued and enjoyed his time at the conference and in San Juan. He lit up when showing me pictures and had a hard time coming up with his most memorable experience. After giving it some thought (and showing me the goat), he said, “Being able to engage with what the island has to offer and seeing another aspect of the world was unique. There was a sense of celebration throughout, music was always playing, that was even true just walking through the city of San Juan.” He hopes to go back to Puerto Rico and was even playing with the idea of seeing what postdoctoral positions are available there after he graduates. I, for one, would like to join him.
If you’re interested in joining SACNAS+ at Columbia, reach out to a SACNAS+ board member or to look out for the next event which you can hear about through Instagram (@sacnas_cu) or by signing up to the group's newsletter (https://forms.gle/rmjhhJqpvFWQGtuh6).