Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences
Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences

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OSU-CHS News > 2015

Sept. 4, 2015

Grant will help Native American undergraduates attend first scientific meeting

Two professors from Oklahoma State University and the University of Washington have been awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation to bring six Native American undergraduate students to their first scientific meeting.

The students will attend the Jan. 2016 annual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology in Portland, Oregon. Known commonly by its acronym, SICB, this broad scientific research society of 3,500 members promotes research and collaboration on diverse topics within biology such as evolution, developmental biology, anatomy, ecology and biodiversity.

UW biology professor Sharlene Santana says she hopes this grant — which includes $15,000 for meeting fees, lodging and travel expenses for the six students — will help recruit Native American students into science careers where they are sharply underrepresented. Santana and her colleague, anatomy and vertebrate paleontology professor Paul Gignac of OSU Center for Health Sciences, decided to recruit Native American students after noticing a dearth of Native American colleagues within SICB.

"Less than half a percent of our society's members are Native American," said Santana, who is also curator of mammals at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. "Our goal was to specifically target this demographic and increase their participation."

Native Americans are one of the most underrepresented minorities in the natural sciences. According to the National Science Foundation, in 2010 nearly 20,000 doctoral degrees were awarded to U.S. citizens or permanent residents for research in mathematics, science and engineering. Just 76 of them were Native Americans. 

“The grant will enable us to bring greater exposure to STEM fields to an under-represented population,” said Gignac. “By meeting with experts and exploring the differing careers options that are available, these students will learn more about STEM and hopefully continue their education in one of these fields.”

Santana hopes that attending the SICB meeting will help the six undergraduates envision future careers in science as they witness a tradition of scientific discovery — meeting with colleagues and sharing new research findings. She and Gignac will pair each undergraduate with one graduate student at the meeting.

"These graduate students will be mentors who will guide them throughout the meeting," said Santana. "They can help the students navigate through all the different events, talks, symposia and social gatherings. They will help them choose which talks to go to, talk to them about career options and introduce them to colleagues."

Santana believes that a professional scientific meeting will immerse the six students in the collaborations and connections that form the basis of a research career.

"We intend for them to learn about our research community and expose them to different stages of this career," she said. "The graduate student mentors will be a good 'stepping stone' on this career path who they can relate to. But they will also meet faculty members, postdoctoral researchers, technicians and other undergraduates. They can do a lot of networking and see many different opportunities and career paths."

The selected students will also attend a symposium at the SICB meeting that Gignac and Santana are organizing on ecomorphology, which explores the interactions between an animal's anatomy and the resources it uses. The SICB meeting is an opportunity to bring together dozens of their colleagues to address this emerging field within biology.

Santana and Gignac have not yet chosen the six undergraduates, who will come from colleges and universities around the country. They may select some students through an application process and others through the Native Explorers Program, which Gignac is affiliated with at OSU-CHS. Santana says they would like to select students with a variety of interests in biology, and hopes that this unique meeting experience will inspire more of them to pursue careers in research.

"There's so much transformative value to this experience," said Santana. "There might be someone thinking about going to medical school, but here they can realize all these other options for careers and research."

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