SACNAS Celebrates 50 Years of Success in STEM Diversity

The Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. For the past five decades, SACNAS has served as an inclusive nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering the success of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans, from college students to professionals, in attaining advanced degrees, careers, and positions of leadership within STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). 

Today the organization serves a growing community of over 28,000 supporters, more than 9,000 active members, and 132 student and professional chapters throughout the United States, including Guam and Puerto Rico. SACNAS influences diversity and inclusion in STEM through outreach, advocacy, recognition of STEM leaders, strategic partnerships and programs, and the annual National Diversity in STEM (NDiSTEM) Conference.   

As SACNAS celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, the organization looks back on its beginnings. This photo shows founding group members in 1973. (Photo courtesy of SACNAS)
As SACNAS celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, the organization looks back on its beginnings. This photo shows founding group members in 1973. (Photo courtesy of SACNAS)

The first official SACNAS meeting was held in Atlantic City, N.J., on April 19, 1973. Eugene Cota-Robles, PhD, vice chancellor and professor of biology at the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC), was elected president and a board of directors was established. Approximately 50 members attended that first meeting, supported by funds from the National Institutes of Health and other federal agencies. Scientific research was presented, and participants discussed the lack of diversity in STEM fields. 

The first board meeting was held on June 1, 1973, at Haskell Indian Junior College in Lawrence, Kan., now known as Haskell Indian Nations University. It was hosted by Don Ahshapanek, PhD, professor of biology at Haskell (Nanticoke Indian Tribe). Richard Tapia, PhD, who is one of only seven educators designated as a University Professor at Rice University, was among those present.

Also in attendance were the following individuals, all of whom are now deceased: Cota-Robles; Arthur Diaz, PhD, chemist at IBM; Ciriaco Gonzales, PhD, microbiologist at the College of Santa Fe; and Alonzo Atencio, PhD, biochemist at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine.

As a first project, the board developed a proposal to launch a predoctoral graduate fellowship program that would recruit and train Chicano and Native American students in science. Their collective goal for SACNAS was to address the paucity of Chicanos and Native Americans in academia and government agencies by training students in the sciences and developing leaders to be at the tables where decisions are made.

Most of these early founders had already been involved in advocating for their communities and were aware of the difficult road that lay ahead for SACNAS. Many would have successful careers in the STEM fields. Cota-Robles would go on to oversee UCSC’s affirmative action policies, faculty development programs, and faculty-based efforts to improve precollege STEM education. Gonzales would serve as director of National Institute of Health’s Minority Biomedical Research Support Program. Tapia is a highly decorated mathematician, National Medal of Science awardee, National Science Board Vannevar Bush Awardee, and a member of the National Academy of Engineering. He is currently director of the Tapia Center for Excellence and Equity in Education at Rice, and is the namesake for the annual Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing Conference.

Although science was dominated by men in 1973, it was not long after the founding of SACNAS that women became well represented among its leaders. Lydia Villa-Komaroff, PhD, who was a graduate student in 1973 studying recombinant DNA, went on to make seminal discoveries in molecular biology and has since served as a senior executive and a board member for numerous biotechnology companies. 

The first woman to preside over the SACNAS Board of Directors was Maria Elena Zavala, PhD, in 2001. Zavala is a decorated plant biologist, a fellow of multiple societies, and had received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM) in 2000. 

Another PAESMEM awardee, as well as a SACNAS president and decorated molecular biologist, Maggie Werner-Washburne, PhD, has mentored more than 100 students from groups underrepresented in the sciences to pursue and earn doctoral degrees in their fields. 

Marigold Linton, PhD (Morongo Band of Mission Indians), was the first Native American to earn a doctorate in psychology. She performed fundamental research in long-term memory, presided over the SACNAS board, and was a PAESMEM awardee. In the late 2000s, she helped found the leadership program that now bears her name, the Linton-Poodry SACNAS Leadership Institute. 

SACNAS chapter leaders gather during the 2022 NdiSTEM Conference held in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Photo courtesy of SACNAS)

Today SACNAS welcomes more than 9,000 multicultural and multidisciplinary members in its programs and services. It provides career development and networking opportunities for students through programs such as NDiSTEM and SACNAS chapters and develops and celebrates STEM professionals through leadership institutes and distinguished awards. For all of its members, SACNAS advocates for important national issues that lie at the intersection of science, culture, and community. 

SACNAS’ annual NDiSTEM Conference is now a premier event where participants gain new scientific knowledge, expand professional networks, and honor culture by bringing their whole selves to science. It is the nexus of the SACNAS community where higher education, government, private industry, and nonprofit organizations come together to invest in and advance the next generation of STEM leaders. 

Juan Amador, SACNAS executive director, shares his vision for the future: “SACNAS’ future is guided by our vibrant members who understand and support the critical importance of our mission and validate our work through their individual contributions not only to their cultural communities, but to STEM leadership and research innovations. The growth of our inclusive, national network speaks to the power of representation and how that matters across all science.” 

Current SACNAS Board President Charla Lambert, PhD (Haida and Tsimshian tribes), adds, “My vision for the future of STEM is one that is equitable, inclusive, and just; where fundamental scientific advancements occur alongside applied science that is centered on community needs, diverse input, and respect for the people and resources it involves. SACNAS and its members are essential to that vision because the SACNAS community has always been a space where culture, values, and intersectional identities are recognized and celebrated as integral parts of a career in science.” 

Past president Pamela Padilla, PhD, adds, “SACNAS was foundational to my success as a scientist, researcher, and leader. My mentors and role models came from this organization, and I am forever grateful to know amazing leaders including Maria Elena Zavala, my PhD mentor Maggie Werner-Washburne, and all the SACNAS women who broke barriers within science.”

To commemorate the 50th anniversary, SACNAS will engage in a variety of activities throughout 2023. The NDiSTEM Conference is slated for Oct. 25-28 in Portland, Oregon, and will recognize 50 years of community building by celebrating founders, elders, past presidents, and other guests of honor; integrating cultural celebrations with scientific and professional development sessions; and assembling leaders who specialize in advancing diversity, inclusion, and justice in STEM.

Submitted by Lee Bitsóí and his fellow SACNISTAs. Bitsóí is a member of the Navajo Nation and serves on the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board and the Board of Directors of SACNAS.

For more information about the upcoming 2023 NDiSTEM Conference hosted by SACNAS, visit sacnas.org.

This article was published in our July/August 2023 issue.