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Illinois SACNAS Chapter honored for commitment to diversity and community education

The University of Illinois Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) chapter was honored with the Small Graduate Chapter of the Year Award at this year’s SACNAS National Conference. Eligible chapters are scored based on the academic advancement, publishing, employment and graduation rate, campus involvement and outreach activities of members.

The U of I chapter is fairly unique among SACNAS chapters because it was founded by graduate students and is primarily comprised of graduate students from across the sciences. In recent years, the group has grown to include undergraduates and now includes two undergraduate board members.

It’s also unique among other on-campus organizations because of its scope. “SACNAS is more inclusive of a larger number of fields, ethnicities, races, and genders than a lot of other scientific clubs on campus,” Chapter Treasurer, Elena Montoto, PhD candidate in Chemistry,  explained. The only requirement for joining SACNAS is an interest in helping to advance Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in the sciences.

“Spanish speakers and Native Americans are a part of science as well. SACNAS helps make sure there is a space to know these students are valued on campus,” Chapter President Alex Stanton, PhD candidate in Chemistry, said.

This diversity of disciplines shines in the group’s primary outreach program, “Cena y Ciencias” (Spanish for “Supper and Science”), which is an educational community program targeted at K-6th graders at local schools who are either Spanish speaking or who are non-native speakers of Spanish interested in learning. The language of the program is Spanish, and it works in conjunction with the Dual Language program at Leal Elementary School in Urbana. The science curriculum changes every semester and courses are all taught by members of the U of I SACNAS Chapter.

Alex Palmer, a PhD candidate in Microbiology and the Outreach Coordinator for the chapter explains, “We do different types of science each time – microbiology, chemistry physics – so it’s helpful to have different specialties when creating these lesson plans. The people who come to the programs benefit from our different perspectives and experiences.”

In addition to scholarship and service, community is a main pillar of SACNAS. “The community is what I didn’t expect,” Alex Palmer said. “I was really interested in outreach. I didn’t realize there was going to be so much community within the chapter, in the broader scientific sphere, and within Urbana and Champaign. We have both English and Spanish speaking parents come to our program, and even the parents are working together to strengthen the Urbana community.”

It’s of crucial importance that the Cena y Ciencias sessions are taught in Spanish to both parents and children. “SACNAS focuses on Spanish being a language of power and not a deterrent. Sometimes you’ll see English being a big deal in science. When you write and give talks, it’s in English. But Spanish is also powerful. We’re not going to exclude science from other nationalities.” Alex Stanton said.

The in-chapter community is one of the most rewarding aspects of SACNAS for many members. “As a first generation college student, none of my family knows anything about even undergrad. I was just talking to Alex (Stanton) the other day about the differences between undergrad and graduate school. The grad students in the chapter are my mentors – I really am learning from some of the best,” Sandy Perez, Chapter Undergraduate Liaisons and Webmaster, said.

Illinois SACNAS is always accepting new members. For more information about the organization, visit their website

University of Illinois SACNAS Chapter Executive Board 2015-2016
  • President: Alex Stanton, PhD candidate, Chemistry
  • Vice President: Kimberly Sam, Undergraduate, Molecular and Cellular Biology
  • Secretary: Brenda Andrade, PhD Candidate, Chemistry
  • Treasurer: Elena Montoto, PhD Candidate, Chemistry
  • Graduate Liaisons: Julio Serrano, PhD Candidate, Chemistry
  • Undergraduate Liaisons and Webmaster: Sandy Perez, Undergraduate, Math
  • Outreach Coordinator: Alex Palmer, Phd Candidate, Microbiology