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Alumna Dr. Sarah Wong: How I Became A STEM Leader of Color

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Author: Dr. Sarah Wong | Category: Career Development | GSBS Alumni | Meet The Researcher | August 25, 2015

Increasing diversity in STEM has always been important to me, but I was rather unaware of how to go about doing it until I arrived at UT Health Science Center San Antonio. 

At UTHSCSA, I met Dr. Nicquet Blake, who is a source of inspiration for many underrepresented minority (URM) students at the university. 

She made an effort to make sure every URM student felt included through a variety of ways: from recruiting URM students from local universities, to hosting a URM luncheon for students throughout the graduate school to come together at the start of every year, to obtaining funding for URM students. 

Dr. Linda McManus was also instrumental in opening my eyes to the different opportunities that were available to minority students. I attended her weekly F-Troop sessions while preparing my application for my F31. 

She suggested I join a few professional societies to strengthen my application and to help me network. One of her suggestions was the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS).

I had never even heard of SACNAS until I met her! When I started learning more about SACNAS, I saw a need for a SACNAS chapter at UTHSCSA

I started the chapter along with Anel Lizcano and Cristina Rohena, both of whom graduated from UTHSCSA and are now postdocs in the IRACDA program at UCSD. 

Dr. Blake agreed to be our sponsor, and we began recruiting other students throughout the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences to join. 

Recruiting was hard work, but we managed to find a few very dedicated individuals to join. After Anel, Cristina, and I graduated; we were very glad to see that the SACNAS UTHSCSA was still thriving in our absence.

SACNAS has remained a major part of my life and career throughout my graduate and postdoctoral studies. I recently attended the SACNAS Summer Leadership institute, which is a wonderful initiative to give underrepresented minority scientists at the postdoctoral, early- and mid-career levels the opportunity to strengthen their leadership skills through leadership development planning and networking. 

Everyone who attends the Summer Leadership institute has the same ultimate goal: to increase diversity in STEM, thus a strong network among participants is formed. I encourage every eligible individual to apply for the SACNAS Summer Leadership institute. I had no idea what to expect when I applied, but the experience was more than I could have hoped for. I now feel connected to not only this year’s cohort of SLI participants, but am connected to all of the participants before me as well.

I am currently a postdoc in the IRACDA program at UT Austin. This program is great in that it combines research with teaching and mentoring experience. The teaching component allows us as postdocs to go to a partner institution, which in our case are local liberal arts universities, to teach (or team-teach) a course over a semester.

The greatest part about this is that it allows me to be a role model to undergraduate students and gives me the chance to inform these students of the opportunities available to them that they may otherwise never know about. 

I attended a small liberal arts university for my undergraduate studies, and while I absolutely loved the experience, there are many things I wish I had gotten to experience as an undergraduate, SACNAS being one of them! I'm hoping to encourage students to start their own SACNAS chapter at our partner institutions. 

I also hope to have some of my students attend the SACNAS National Conference. This conference is geared towards undergrads and is a perfect opportunity for students to showcase their research across a variety of different science disciplines. 

Not attending a SACNAS conference is one of my greatest regrets as an undergrad. I didn’t know about all of the opportunities it would provide, from allowing attendees to strengthen their presentation skills, to the great networking opportunities.

In the fall, I will be attending the Compact for Faculty Diversity's Institute on Teaching and Mentoring for the fourth time. 

I was originally invited to attend the Institute after receiving the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award Individual Predoctoral Fellowship to Promote Diversity in Health-Related Research (F31) from the NIH National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) and being designated an NIH Bridges Scholar.

One of the really great aspects of the Institute is the opportunity to invite your mentor to attend as well. I find this particularly important for mentors who are not members of the underrepresented minority who may not realize the struggles and prejudices that their URM students may face. 

Some of the Institute's sessions on mentoring focus on this issue, and allow the faculty who attend them become better mentors to URM students in turn.

As a graduate student, I found the Institute to be incredibly useful. They have a variety of sessions for students, postdocs, and professionals at every level. 

The Institute made me realize the importance of networking. They even provide you with your own business cards to hand out to recruiters (or anyone you choose)! 

The Institute on Teaching and Mentoring is an invite-only event for SREB-State Doctoral Scholars, NIH Bridges to the Professoriate NIGMS-MARC scholars, NSF Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate scholars, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation scholars and Ronald E. McNair Program scholars. Students interested in attending should apply for the FASEB MARC sponsorship.

This year, the Compact for Faculty Diversity is sponsoring a new project in addition to the Institute on Teaching and Mentoring: the Compact for Faculty Diversity Research Mentoring Institute (CFD-RMI). 

This project is sponsored by the NIH National Research Mentoring Network (more information about the CFD-RMI can be found here). I am thrilled to be participating in this event, and hope to further expand on my knowledge of teaching and mentoring through this opportunity.

As for the future, I plan to always work to increase diversity in STEM, though my next career moves will the largely dictated by my geographical location. 

My husband is a pilot in the Air Force and our next assignment is actually in Japan. I'm thrilled for the opportunity to live abroad for a few years, and plan to continue to work towards my goal of increasing diversity in STEM in the US through writing, blogging, and networking. 

I feel that science is such a global community these days that I can still reach my goals even from the other side of the world!

This article is part of the "Meet The Researcher" series which showcases researchers at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio. 

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