Penn SACNAS chapter fosters sense of community for underrepresented students in science

A new group on campus is helping students from underrepresented minorities feel at home pursuing science at Penn.

SACNAS, which stands for the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science, is a national organization with a mission “dedicated to fostering the success of Chicano/Hispanic and Native American scientists, from college students to professionals, in attaining advanced degrees, careers, and positions of leadership in STEM.” Founded in 1973 by a small group of scientists, SACNAS now has 6,000 members and 115 chapters nationwide. Penn’s student chapter, led by chapter president Kevin Alicea-Torres, a Ph.D. student in the Perelman School of Medicine, became official in December 2016.

Alicea-Torres first joined SACNAS as an undergraduate at the University of Puerto Rico at Humacao. Upon arriving at Penn, he worked with Arnaldo Diaz, assistant dean for research and training programs and an adjunct assistant professor of pharmacology at Penn Medicine, to share his interest in starting a chapter with students from various graduate groups across the Biomedical Graduate Studies (BGS) division.

“It was great knowing that students were willing to be a part of this,” says Alicea-Torres. “Diverse voices lead to creative solutions in science, and Dr. Diaz has a great vision for how to create and support a diverse community here at Penn.”

Diaz, who has been involved in SACNAS for years and participated in its leadership institute during his postdoctoral work at Penn, is the group’s chapter adviser.

“It’s important for recruitment and retention to have a sense of community so when students come here they feel safe and feel they have a space to express themselves, a place where they’re not going to be judged,” says Diaz. “We do that in other ways in Biomedical Graduate Studies, with the Ernest E. Just and Biomedical Society and other groups, but by bringing in SACNAS, we expand our map, folding in groups we haven’t reached out to before.”

The chapter now has roughly 80 members in BGS, and a full plate of professional development and outreach activities. Since last fall, SACNAS has held workshops on writing scientific grants, getting involved in science policy, managing stress, and communicating science. They’ve also collaborated with other student organizations, including the Penn Science Diplomacy, Penn Science Policy, and Natives at Penn groups, co-sponsoring a symposium on science diplomacy this spring and launching a podcast series featuring interviews with science faculty and trainees from underrepresented groups at Penn.

In addition, they started a science café series and a seminar series featuring women in science, the first of which highlighted the work of Kelly Jordan-Sciutto, director of BGS, chair and professor of pathology at the School of Dental Medicine, and one of SACNAS’ faculty advisers.

Since a love of science is best fostered early, SACNAS members are also devoting energy to reach out to younger students in the Philadelphia area. Led by Nicole Hernandez, the group’s outreach and recruitment chair and a doctoral student in the Neuroscience Graduate Group, SACNAS hosted a booth at this spring’s Philadelphia Science Festival and will participate in the Young Innovator’s Fair this weekend, June 10-11, at the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center, sharing a hands-on science activity about epigenetics and increasing awareness about their group’s mission.

For Hernandez, participating in SACNAS is a chance to give back.

“I received so much support as an undergrad from NIH-funded diversity programs,” she says. “I wanted to provide support for others and introduce science to underprivileged children in our community.”

On Wednesday, June 14, at noon in the John Morgan Building, the group will host one of the founders of the national SACNAS organization, molecular biologist Lydia Villa-Komaroff, in a seminar co-sponsored by BGS and the Office of Research and Diversity Training. Her talk, which is free and open to the public, will touch on how implicit bias affects diversity in academia.

To learn more about SACNAS and its upcoming events, visit the group’s website.