Con­fer­ence em­braces im­mi­grant, LGBT stu­dents in sci­ence

San Antonio Express-News - - METRO - By Vin­cent T. Davis

Be­com­ing a physi­cian can be a chal­lenge for many stu­dents, but Christo­pher Ponce’s im­mi­gra­tion sta­tus cre­ates ad­di­tional hur­dles.

Ponce, whose par­ents brought him to Texas from Mex­ico when he was just 4 years old, is able to stay in this coun­try un­der the De­ferred Ac­tion for Child­hood Ar­rivals pro­gram. He re­cently grad­u­ated from Texas Tech but now he’s find­ing med­i­cal schools in Texas won’t ac­cept him be­cause of the pro­gram’s un­cer­tain fu­ture un­der the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

For­tu­nately, he said, he met a re­cruiter for the So­ci­ety for the Ad­vance­ment of Chi­canos/His­panic & Na­tive Amer­i­cans in Sci­ence who helped him se­cure an in­tern­ship and a job as a re­search as­sis­tant in Ore­gon, where he may be able to con­tinue his ed­u­ca­tion.

“Maybe next fall I’ll be in med­i­cal school and ev­ery­thing will have all been worth it,” Ponce, 23, said Fri­day.

Ponce was among the thou­sands of sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and math­e­mat­ics stu­dents, sci­en­tists and re­searchers who gath­ered at the Henry B. Gonzalez Co­nis ven­tion Cen­ter for the so­ci­ety’s an­nual Na­tional Di­ver­sity in STEM Con­fer­ence, which ends to­day.

The 45-year-old or­ga­ni­za­tion’s mis­sion is sup­port­ing un­der­rep­re­sented mi­nori­ties in pur­su­ing ad­vanced de­grees, ca­reers and lead­er­ship po­si­tions in STEM fields.

John D. Win­nett, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor, said help­ing un­doc­u­mented and LGBT stu­dents part of the so­ci­ety’s com­mit­ment to di­ver­sity.

“We ask our at­ten­dees to al­ways bring their whole selves to STEM and not check their cul­ture at the door when they ar­rive,” he said. “We need those dif­fer­ences within our mem­ber­ship and at­ten­dees to guide where we’re go­ing.”

The com­mit­ment ex­tends to prac­ti­cal mat­ters; bath­rooms on the first and third floors of the Con­ven­tion Cen­ter are des­ig­nated as gen­der neu­tral to ac­com­mo­date stu­dents’ re­quests.

“I was just blown away by all of the in­clu­siv­ity,” said El­iz­a­beth Cer­vantes, 19, a stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Texas at San An­to­nio. “I went into one of the gen­der neu­tral bath­rooms and I just cried. It’s some­thing that’s so in­cred­i­bly in­spir­ing.”

When plan­ning was un­der­way last year for the con­fer­ence, con­tro­versy erupted over a bill in the Texas Leg­is­la­ture that would have re­quired Texans to use pub­lic bath­rooms based on their bi­o­log­i­cal sex. Nu­mer­ous na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions threat­ened to — and some did — can­cel planned con­ven­tions in Texas.

So­ci­ety pres­i­dent Lino Gonzalez said the or­ga­ni­za­tion never con­sid­ered back­ing out.

“It felt disin­gen­u­ous to say we’re go­ing to pull this con­fer­ence out of the state,” he said. “It felt like aban­don­ing the peo­ple who live here and can’t do any­thing about the leg­is­la­tion ex­cept vote.”

Win­nett said or­ga­ni­za­tion lead­ers thought their mis­sion would be bet­ter served by com­ing to Texas, not stay­ing away.

“It is our obli­ga­tion as a na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tion to use the power of a na­tional voice to in­flu­ence, shape and change poli­cies across this coun­try,” Win­nett said.

Eve­lyn Valdez-Ward, a third year Ph.D. stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Irvine, be­came an ad­vo­cate for the un­doc­u­mented com­mu­nity af­ter she ex­pe­ri­enced a series of re­jec­tions be­cause of her DACA sta­tus.

She’s ap­pre­ci­ates the so­ci­ety’s sup­port and said she’s con­cerned about the DACA stu­dents’ lack of ac­cess to fed­er­ally funded grants for sci­en­tific pur­suits.

“All of our op­por­tu­ni­ties are in­cred­i­bly lim­ited,” she said.

Clarissa Mae de Leon, a stu­dent at St. Ed­ward’s Univer­sity in Austin who came out last year, said her love of my­col­ogy, the study of fungi, mir­rors her love for her fam­ily and her cul­ture. She said she looks for­ward to fol­low­ing the ex­am­ple of two peo­ple from her small town of Lav­illa in South Texas who are now doc­toral can­di­dates.

“Maybe one day I could come back to the com­mu­nity and give back,” de Leon said. “SACNAS is very im­por­tant in al­low­ing me to see that dream come into fruition.”

Pho­tos by Josie Nor­ris / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Omase Omoruyi shares her re­search on star for­ma­tion with Chuk­wunoso Arinze on Fri­day dur­ing the 45th an­nual Na­tional Di­ver­sity in STEM Con­fer­ence at the Henry B. Gonzalez Con­ven­tion Cen­ter.

Grad­u­ate stu­dent and DACA ac­tivist and ad­vo­cate El­iz­a­beth Valdez-Ward lis­tens to a pre­sen­ta­tion at the di­ver­sity con­fer­ence.

Josie Nor­ris / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Christo­pher Ponce an­swers at­ten­dees’ ques­tions Fri­day dur­ing the con­fer­ence, which aims to sup­port un­der­rep­re­sented mi­nori­ties in sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and math.

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