“When I heard about SACNAS, I thought ’this is something I should be a part of.’  I went to a meeting and, right away, it felt like a community,” says Maria Sanchez (above), who plans to become a doctor specializing in infectious diseases. “Looking back, joining was a key step in the transformation to who I am today.” 

A national organization, SACNAS—the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science—fosters the success of students who are under-represented in science, particularly by encouraging the pursuit of advanced academic and professional degrees.
 
In 2013, the DePaul chapter was named undergraduate chapter of the year. 

“That award recognized all the hard work we did—and by ‘we’ I mean the students—to make our chapter outstanding,” says Jesus Pando (right), associate professor, chair of the physics department and SACNAS faculty moderator. 

“Programming was expanded to include professional development. A career workshop brought grad school and medical school admission committees, as well as industry professionals, to campus. And the students put together study jams so that they could work together and relieve the anxiety of taking the GRE/MCAT tests.”

Lillian Perez (BS ’13), who’s studying neural biology in a PhD program at the University of Illinois in Chicago, remembers that SACNAS felt “like a big family.” She credits the group with giving her the peer support she needed: “We shared resources and information about opportunities and internships, without the competitive rancor often found in the sciences. It was great to know that I wasn’t the only one having to work so hard.”

The Big Show

At the annual, national SACNAS conference, everyone—students, graduate students, post-doc researchers, professors and working scientists—comes together for symposia and workshops. “All the major doctoral programs, plus medical schools, national labs and government agencies, are there, looking for students to put in their pipelines,” says Pando. “This is the big event for students—it changes their world.”

Christopher Gallardo (BS ’12), who’s in a PhD program in pharmacology at the University of Minnesota, agrees:  “Because I am a first-generation college student, the idea of grad school was intimidating. But at the conference, I was able to find out how programs are shaped and how I could afford one. Getting noticed gave me confidence, and the connections I made eventually led to my enrollment at Minnesota.”

Confidence is one word that pops up, again and again, among SACNAS alumni.

Perez recalls presenting the research she’d conducted as a summer intern with Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science. “The conference was a huge chance to become more confident. As a presenter, I had to talk about my work—about its approach, methods and impacts—as if I were a professional. That’s not something students get to do very often.”

Sanchez says she carries the lessons she learned in SACNAS, and the confidence she gained, with her after graduation: “At one of our meetings, Dr. Pando said, ‘It’s not your job to say no; that’s someone else’s responsibility. Your job is always to go for what you want. Apply for everything—for every program, every internship and every scholarship.’ That really resonated with me.  Now I’m ready for the next thing. I’m sure of myself.”

Above and Beyond

The DePaul chapter does one more thing that’s out of the ordinary: students are expected to participate in community outreach. Last year, that commitment began with their parents.

“Many of them haven’t finished high school, and they don’t exactly know what their children are doing at the university generally and in science specifically,” says Pando.  “So our students organized a day during which their parents toured the labs, watched videos of their kids talking about their aspirations, and met with a roundtable of faculty who answered any and all their questions. This day was hugely successful.”

The SACNAS chapter also reaches out to high school students to encourage them in their interests in science, as well as to students at other universities. The chapter has strong alliances with Northeastern Illinois University, Northwestern University and University of Chicago; the universities’ chapters share resources and information. 

“In the tradition of DePaul, our students want to give back to their communities,” says Pando. “SACNAS is helping make them the kind of citizens we hope they’ll be when they leave here.”