SALT LAKE CITY — Thousands of Hispanic, Native American and Chicano students are gathering in Salt Lake City this week for one of the largest national STEM conventions for minorities.
The 2017 National Diversity in STEM Conference gives underrepresented students a chance to meet mentors and network with employers in science, technology, engineering or mathematics.
The event is hosted by the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science, a nonprofit corporation dedicated to fostering minority students studying STEM.
Nearly 3,800 students received professional training, presented research, visited science exhibitors and networked with employers and mentors at the conference, which runs through Saturday.
For Karina Vazquez-Arreguin, attending the conference is like being part of a big family.
"Everybody supports you," she said Thursday. "The (mentors) pursued a career in STEM and they succeeded. It's always great to hear these stories, like, 'Oh, that's so similar to my story. Then I can do it, too.'"
When she first came to the University of Utah in 2012, Vazquez-Arreguin was the only Latino graduate student working on her doctorate in molecular biology. Feeling out of place and alone, she wondered if she had picked the right career.
Then she heard about the resources at the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science. Along with four other minority students, she helped found a local chapter at the university.
So many students joined the chapter that club leaders decided to open a second chapter specifically for those studying health sciences.
"It seemed unreal, to have an actual nice-sized chapter," Vazquez-Arreguin said.
She is currently researching the molecular mechanisms of colon and breast cancer in mice, searching for a way to remove a certain protein to prevent the onset of cancer.
The president of the main chapter of the society at the U., Ruben Cano, first heard about the group in a university lab class.
"It was exactly what I was looking for," he said. "It’s been really fun to be able to talk to other students that share my similar background, similar stories, and how they’ve overcome their challenges."
As a first-generation college student, he said he didn't have anyone to ask how to apply to graduate or medical school. The science society provided the resources he needed to study pre-med biology.
"To be able to solve problems in the 21st century, we need diverse perspectives, especially in science," Cano said. "It’s not just a one-man team that makes a great discovery, it’s a collaboration between all scientists."
A majority of the attendees study biomedical research, according to statistics from last year's conference.
Society President Lino Gonzalez said the organization plays a large role in mentoring minority students.
"It’s important for the communities that we come to are aware of what we’re doing," he said. "We bring a certain perspective right to the table."
The population of Latinos in the United States is increasing, he said, and those students shouldn't be left behind in STEM opportunities.
"Our communities have been a part of the United States since the United States started," he added. "If you don’t have that voice as a part of the whole discussion, I think we’re missing a lot."
Although the name of the organization focuses on Latinos and Native Americans, Executive Director Antonia Franco said students from all backgrounds are welcome.
"We’re slowly getting the word out. I feel like we’re the best kept secret," she said. "There’s so much opportunity here for students that we want to be able to share it with as many people as possible."
Donica Lucban, a sophomore studying molecular biology at San Jose City College in California, said her local chapter has barely two dozen members. But attending the conference makes her feel a part of something bigger.
"When you see opportunities in front of you when all hope is lost, it just brings back a spark because it feels like you’ve been walking in the dark for so long," she said.