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A group of individuals stands in front of an orange SACNAS Puerto Rico banner.

Championing culture in science: SACNAS diversity conference

By Elana Roldan

Students from Oregon State University along with thousands of other attendees from across the nation were welcomed to the National Diversity in STEM (NDiSTEM) Conference last term. The event was built to serve as a reminder that culture and science are not mutually exclusive or contradictory. NDiSTEM asserted that science is not a place to shed culture, but a place where it should thrive.

The Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science, more commonly known as SACNAS, hosted the conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico on Oct. 27, 2022. Attendees ranging from college students to professionals gathered to empower minorities in science fields, and the Oregon State chapter of SACNAS — in addition to other Oregon State students — spent a weekend immersed in all the conference had to offer. Keynote speakers and lessons on the culture of Puerto Rico characterized the event and echoed the celebration of identity at its core.

“To embrace culture in science is to embrace yourself,” said Adriana Perez, an undergraduate student and a Community Representative of the Oregon State SACNAS chapter. Perez conducts outreach on the chapter’s behalf and is currently working to increase its membership. “It was really nice to see that the conference was a safe place where we can all embrace our culture and not be boxed in.”

As the first in-person NDiSTEM conference since 2019, anticipation swelled leading up to the event.

"If it weren’t for this conference and this symposium, I wouldn’t have known the opportunities available to me."

Rosalia Tanori, the vice president of SACNAS at Oregon State, started her fourth year of college in 2022 having never attended a SACNAS conference due to the pandemic. When the opportunity arose, she described herself as “Excited, excited to see where the conference would lead me with possible career options or graduate schools or networking.”

For others, the return of the in-person conference brought welcomed familiarity. As an undergraduate student at New Mexico Highlands University uncertain on what to pursue in 2019, Jenna Bustos found clarity through SACNAS. Bustos currently studies radiochemistry — the study of radioactive isotopes, including actinides and technetium — as a graduate student at Oregon State University, and her passion for her field emerged from the 2019 NDiSTEM conference.

“I went to the SACNAS conference to network and explore grad school options. When I was there I met Professor May Nyman, who is here at Oregon State University, and she invited me to this symposium talking about actinide science,” she said.

Coincidentally, both Professor Nyman and Bustos would return to the conference three years later. After an internship studying radiochemistry over the summer of 2022, Bustos was invited to give a talk on the field and her internship experience at the 2022 NDiSTEM conference.

“It was kind of surreal sitting there, making my presentation. I talked about how I started at SACNAS, and that’s what basically led me here,” she said. “It was this full-circle thing for me, getting to represent OSU and discuss research opportunities available to these underrepresented students. If it weren’t for this conference and this symposium, I wouldn’t have known the opportunities available to me.”

Three women stand in front of an sign reading "I heart SJ."

Alumna Ana Arteaga, Professor May Nyman, and graduate student Jenna Bustos pictured in San Juan, Puerto Rico during the weekend of the conference.

Such opportunities were plentiful at the event, with organizations such as NASA, National Geographic and Google available for networking. Outside of tabling with companies and graduate schools, the conference gave attendees a chance to celebrate their cultures freely in a scientific environment.

“They told us attendees, ‘Within the formal business attire you are wearing, put on anything representative of your culture,’” said Adriana Perez. “I had an embroidered shirt that was representative of my Mexican culture and heritage. Other students had traditional jewelry and even traditional regalia.”

To highlight the culture of Puerto Rico, the conference presented lessons on Puerto Rican dance and music that saw hundreds of attendees rise from their seats, dancing together. Indigenous vendors also held a marketplace within the conference where they sold traditional crafts and goods, and local foods were in abundance.

Performers dance on a stage during SACNAS conference.

Performers entertain a lively crowd with Bomba, a music and dance style with roots embedded deep in Puerto Rican traditions.

“The SACNAS conference really tries to push culture through the whole thing, because that’s what their main mission is: to bring culture into science,” said Rosalia Tanori on the melding of science and Puerto Rican traditions at the event.

Cultural resilience and honoring stood at the heart of the SACNAS conference, a message that went home with each attendee. One speaker’s words stayed with Judith Quintana, an undergraduate student and president of the Oregon State SACNAS chapter, weeks after she had returned to Oregon.

“The speaker was Puerto Rican and she was talking about how she left Puerto Rico,” Quintana recalled. “People would say that she was loud and that she didn’t know stuff because she was a woman, and she did not care. She’s like, ‘I’m still showing up, I’m still doing the work, I’m still in the lab.’ That really stuck with me—not losing yourself to fit into science.”

Two women in professional attire pose with name tags at SACNAS conference.

President Judith Quintana and Vice President Rosalia Tanori from the Oregon State chapter of SACNAS pose together at their first NDiSTEM conference.