Patrick Hadley: Hello and welcome to another episode of the University of Utah’s GradAttack podcast. Today we are speaking with Daniela Chavez, who is head of the University of Utah’s chapter of SACNAS, which is the society for the advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science. We’re speaking to you today because, of course, what you do is always important, but there’s been a lot of attention drawn on minority issues at universities in the media lately, and I thought it would be important to get your particular take on this, because this is actually one area that is not being looked at as closely as we’d like, really, Chicanos and Native Americans in particular. So, can you tell our listeners briefly, just by way of introduction, what SACNAS is and what you do for your members and for the university at large.
Daniela Chavez: I guess I’ll just start with our mission. This SACNAS chapter is actually a pretty new chapter – it was only started a couple of years ago, and actually was reinitiated by some graduate students. The mission that we have is to foster the success of minority and underrepresented graduate students, undergraduate students, and postdocs on campus to pursue advanced degrees, careers, and positions of leadership in science. So, essentially what we can do for members is provide a community where minority students can feel at home, and particularly minority students who are in the sciences. I think a lot of times, as scientists, we’re expected to say or be a certain way, and it’s nice to have a place where we can feel like we can express ourselves both as scientists and also as the people that we are ethnically, and celebrate our background. So that’s what SACNAS does for our members, is provide a community where we can feel at home in that sort of way. And I think it also gives minority students a place where we can obtain positions of leadership and learn how to act as leaders.
PH: You mention that you want a place where you can be both a scientist and express yourself honestly and ethnically. You seem to be implying that there is a great deal of whitewashing, or at least expecting the white male to be the norm in sciences. Is that something that you’ve dealt with regularly on a day-to-day basis in science, or that your members deal with.
DC: I think, in particular, for scientists coming from out of the state, yes, they do feel this. Particularly at Utah, people come here and they feel like there are very few minorities around. Maybe I’m not the absolute best to speak to this because I might be a little bit of an outlier. I’m Hispanic, my mother is from Costa Rica and my father’s family’s Mexican, but I’m a Utah girl. I was born and raised here, and I was very much raised as a Latina, but also, I’m a Utah girl. So I’m used to feeling this way, but it’s certainly something that our members feel as they come from out of state. It’s quite alarming to some people.
PH: I can understand that, for sure – or, at least, appreciate it. Now, that’s kind of a Utah-specific problem, but of course SACNAS has chapters across the country. So what problems or difficulties was it founded to combat across the country?
DC: Absolutely. So, Hispanics and Native Americans are actually the fastest growing demographic in the US. However, they’re really significantly under-represented, specifically in STEM fields. So SACNAS was first started around the seventies by a group of scientists who were Chicanos and Native Americans who were interested in representing Chicanos and Native Americans in the STEM fields.
PH: Okay. And so this emphasis on Chicanos and Native Americans, in particular – though that sounds like it’s not at all exclusive, based on what you were saying earlier – but that particular emphasis is based on a demographic growth that was not being represented?
DC: Yes, absolutely. We do represent a very fast-growing population. For example, I only have information from 2011, but in 2011 Hispanics made up about 17% of the population, but were really only making up about 6% of the total STEM workforce. And Native Americans were only representing less than 1% of the total STEM workforce.
PH: That does sound like a very serious problem – or, at least, a serious social justice issue that should be rectified in some way. Are you seeing much success in meeting your goals of doing that right now. Do you have any particular success stories or initiatives that you’d like to share?
DC: Yeah. I think that we are seeing success. I believe we have been growing in the past couple of years, and so there’s certainly growing pains and it’s difficult to keep up with things, but one of the really great successes that we’ve had is with the seminar series that we’ve started called SACNAS talks. So, for SACNAS talks we bring in faculty and also other scientists who are in industry, as well, and we have them come give a seminar where they don’t just tell us about their science, but they tell us about their personal journey. And that, I think, is one of the hardest things about being a scientist – you know, it’s challenging, and we don’t always talk about how challenging it is. And so this seminar series has really given us an opportunity to highlight a few scientists and to get their personal opinion and their personal take on “this is how I got through it despite my challenges.”
PH: Okay. You know, I myself, though I’m not a scientist, I have a personal vendetta against this obnoxious facebook meme called “I Effing Love Science.” And I dislike it particularly because I think it basically posts a picture of a galaxy, and then a picture of Neil deGrasse Tyson making out with the galaxy or something, and then it says “SCIENCE!” in big letters. And what it always tends to elide – and I’ve actually mentioned this in a few other interviews with people because I just have this range against this thing – but what it tends to elide is the sacrifices that people undergo to conduct research: you know, the years of low pay, the years of very difficult labor conditions, of grant writing, and of course, in the case of people who are under the umbrella of SACNAS, the years of institutionalized second-class citizenship. And that can be very difficult, so I’m glad to hear you say that you have people coming and talking about these personal journeys. That’s the sort of thing that, it seems like, if we had a bit more of on facebook, maybe fewer people would think that science is a magic button that one can push. But that’s neither here nor there – that’s my own rant. To get to more recent and topical matters, in light of everything that happened at Mizzou and at universities around the country, the U. has ostensibly become more sensitive to racial inequality on campus. Just recently, and this was last month, I think, the day after Mizzou’s president resigned, and their chancellor, our own president led a march designed to raise awareness of these problems on campus here, essentially attempting to get ahead of the curve on that. Now, from your perspective, do you see this kind of action leading to real change, or is this merely cosmetic, you know, undertaken for marketing purposes?
DC: I think it’s nearly impossible to say what the actual reason behind it was. Maybe it was for marketing purposes, but I think either way in can be a step in the right direction. And I say “can be” because I think that only time will tell. I personally was unable to attend the march, but I did hear a lot about it, and I was able to speak to some of the organizers about it, and it seems like it was messy and it was contentious, certainly, but I think that what we have to realize is that any change is uncomfortable, whether it be on a personal level, certainly at a university level, and certainly at a national level, and especially for topics like racism. I think that’s to be expected, but I think it will only be a change if something is going to come of it. We can sit together and talk about issues and we can even suggest really great ideas about issues all day long, but I think only time will tell if change is actually going to happen, and if the administrators are going to listen to what was actually said. One thing I understand that was mentioned was the need for space, and for a place for minority groups to go to feel comfortable. It seems like that was a prominent issue or a prominent request. So I think we can take maybe one or two issues, and not try to combat the whole thing at once, but choose one or two things and respond to them, really hammer them out. We’ll have to have more conversations about these things, and you know, the initial suggestion is probably far from the perfect solution. So I think we should get together and talk about it more and hammer out one good idea that most people agree with.
PH: In terms of that, what real one substantial change would you like to see at the University Of Utah, in particular, that would make the pursuit of science careers and leadership roles easier for Chicanos and Native Americans.
DC: I think that one really big challenge for students all the way from elementary school to being a postdoc, really, is finding – you know, there’s no road map. I think that if universities can help us compile resources, and to have one place – because it takes a lot of time to gather resources – to figure out what career trajectory one is interested in. And so I think our group thinks that helping us gather resources – and I personally think, getting them out there to us, because students are so busy and our studies do take priority, and it’s difficult to get all these resources together. So if the university can help us compile resources and help us find career-development tools, I think that could be really helpful. As far as helping Chicanos and Native Americans, I think that locally we can also reach out to the community. So one of our goals as a SACNAS chapter is to be a face for minorities in science and to reach out to the local communities. And I think it’s difficult for high school teachers and elementary school teachers to identify students who are willing to go do this, and to keep that connection going. One thing that the university can do is help teachers compile these resources and maybe have one website where a teacher can go and identify people who are interested in coming out and doing some hands-on things with their students, particularly to the minority populations.
PH: Yeah, that would be great. I can only imagine the psychological impact it could have on the student from a disadvantaged background to have someone from a similar background come in and give a presentation about what they could do.
DC: Absolutely. And I know there are so many people who are interested in this. There are particular labs, there are particular people. I’ve asked graduate students to help with outreach events and they basically always say yes. We’re willing to do this, but I think that there is a breakdown in communication – one particularly invested high school teacher will reach out and have someone come and present, but then to maintain that connection and for incoming teachers to know where to go, I think that’s a really big challenge, and maybe we can help them by saying not just once, but every year, saying, “here we are. We’re your university, and we want to encourage our minority students, and we want to be a face, and we want to represent science.
PH: And if someone wants to become involved in your organization, can you tell them how they would go about doing that?
DC: Yeah, absolutely. So, we have our meetings on the last Wednesday of every month in the Emma Eccles Jones research building. It’s at noon in the fourth-floor conference room. You can also reach us on Facebook. We are SACNAS at the University of Utah. And our email is [email protected]. If I can mention one more thing, actually, I think one big issue for scientists on campus is the literal, physical barrier between upper campus and lower campus. There are scientists on lower campus and there are scientists on upper campus – there’s the school of medicine, the department of human genetics, where I am, biochemistry – I mean there are all these departments up there that have scientists, and then there’s biology down on lower campus. I think that’s a huge issue for us. It takes nearly an hour out of your day to travel back and forth if you’re going to a seminar across campus. So I don’t know exactly what the perfect solution to this is, but I think, particularly for SACNAS and also for other groups, it would help to have administrative staff that are actually helping student groups be organized and meet together and come together.
PH: Yeah. In a place that is sort of remotely reachable by one or the other group.
DC: Yeah. And it’s not that it’s unreachable, but it’s an obstacle when you’ve got experiments going and things have to be timed, it is an obstacle.
PH: Absolutely. Yeah, I can appreciate that very much. So thank you very much, Daniela, for talking to us today. It’s been a real pleasure, and we wish you and SACNAS the best of luck. Please do find them on the internet and on facebook, in general, and we hope to hear more from you in the future.
DC: Great. Thanks for having me.