Student group works to foster diversity in the sciences

UChicago chapter honored for helping support students across campus, community

When Christian Porras came to the University of Chicago three years ago, he knew he had a passion for science. What was less apparent to him was how to chart a path from first-year student to research scientist.

As a first-generation college student from a low-income household, Porras didn’t know anyone who had taken a similar path. That changed when he connected with the UChicago chapter of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science.

“SACNAS became this community, this family for me. It removed some of the uncertainties about my professional goals because I was able to talk to people who were further down the path,” Porras said. Now a fourth-year majoring in biological sciences, Porras is undergraduate president of the campus chapter.

This month, SACNAS named the UChicago group chapter of the year for demonstrating significant accomplishments and activities across five areas—recruitment and membership retention, professional development, community outreach, chapter development and fundraising.

One reason for the honor was a regional conference that the leadership team of the UChicago chapter planned earlier this year. They oversaw the 2019 Midwest Regional SACNAS Conference, which brought more than 200 students from the Midwest and around the United States to UChicago for a day of research presentations and professional development.

With the theme “Empowering through Boundaries,” the conference focused on inclusion and helping students overcome the challenge of breaking through career obstacles. Workshops covered a range of topics—from crafting compelling academic applications to including disabilities in discussions about diversity.

“This award is an acknowledgement and appreciation of all the hard work that our chapter has put in, not just this year, but over the course of its history at UChicago,” said Juan Manuel Vazquez, graduate president of the organization and a fifth-year PhD student in the Department of Human Genetics. He served as chair and lead for the 2019 Midwest conference.

The UChicago chapter of SACNAS was formed in 2016 and became a registered student organization in 2018. The organization has about 50 members, however, its events are open to all students and draw people from different backgrounds and disciplines. Lucia Rothman Denes, the A. J. Carlson Professor in the Department of Molecular Genetics, serves as its faculty adviser.

Another area of impact for the chapter has been local community outreach. Under the leadership of Porras and Lauren Blake, a PhD candidate in Human Genetics, the organization partnered with schools in Chicago and Indiana to host a series of introductory programming workshops for high school students led by computational postdoctoral researchers.

Vazquez pointed to the success of SACNAS as an example of the University’s overall progress in diversity and inclusion. The Office of the Provost Diversity and Inclusion Initiative, Diversity and Inclusion Small Grants Program within the Biological Sciences Division, and Student Government are the chapter’s major sources of funding. Vazquez looks forward to seeing the work of SACNAS continue to grow on campus.

“Now we have saplings from all the seeds that we’ve planted over the last couple years,” he said. “It’s important to look at the initiatives to see which ones we can continue and which ones we can improve to make sure the saplings become trees that the next generation of UChicago faculty and students can take from.”