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Emerging Researchers Find Community, Inspiration at 10th Annual Conference

A woman in purple sits in a wheelchair on stage in front of the AAAS logo
Filmmaker Crystal Emery speaks at the 10th annual Emerging Researchers National Conference in STEM in Washington, D.C. | Michael Colella/Colella Digital

Filmmaker Crystal Emery has often been a reluctant member of “the one and only club.”

Emery – director and producer of the 2016 documentary feature “Black Women in Medicine,” founder and CEO of URU The Right to Be Inc., and a AAAS IF/THEN Ambassador – has had the experience of being the only woman, the only person of color or the only person with a disability in a space, she told attendees of the Emerging Researchers National (ERN) Conference in STEM in Washington, D.C.

“Now I’m sure everybody in here has had the experience of being in ‘the one and only club,’” Emery said. Being the default representative for an underrepresented group can be a challenging burden, she added.

Yet Emery urged attendees to be their unique selves and continue pursuing work that they find meaningful.

“I will not accept defeat, and neither should you,” Emery said during her Feb. 7 plenary address.

The Emerging Researchers National Conference in STEM, hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion program and the National Science Foundation’s Division of Human Resource Development, provides undergraduate and graduate students in STEM – especially those from underrepresented minority groups and those with disabilities – opportunities to develop critical communication skills and prepare for science careers in a global workforce.

Now in its 10th year, the 2020 conference also provided an opportunity for its record-breaking 1,500 participants – mostly students representing hundreds of colleges and universities – to share their work, get inspired by others’ work and be part of a community.

“People can come here and be themselves,” said Shirley Malcom, senior adviser at AAAS and director of AAAS’ SEA Change program. “This is the kind of place where we are cheering for each other.”

The ERN agenda featured several sessions that aimed to inspire conference-goers. John Urschel, a former football player for the Baltimore Ravens, spoke about experiences while pursuing his Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A panel drawn from the growing pool of ERN alumni shared how the conference has shaped their career and education plans and how their participation in ERN has informed their desire to give back and make a difference. Representatives of AAAS and NSF, including AAAS CEO Sudip Parikh; Claudia Rankins, program director of NSF’s Division of Human Resource Development; and Sylvia James, NSF deputy assistant director for the directorate of education and human resources, delivered remarks on the conference theme “Preparing Diverse Researchers to Address Global Challenges.”

Another panel, focused on applying STEM to social justice, was also heavily attended with students remaining for more than an hour afterward to ask questions of the panelists, according to Iris R. Wagstaff, STEM program director at AAAS and ERN conference lead.

The panel, Wagstaff said, sought “to show you all the options, all the opportunities, all the different career pathways that are available to you to leverage your STEM background to really address these global challenges that we need you to address.”

Three panelists sit on a stage in front of the AAAS logo
Davina Durgana (left), Sacoby Wilson and Diana Yousef take part in an ERN panel on science for social justice. | Michael Colella/Colella Digital

Davina Durgana spoke with ERN attendees about her work using statistics to better understand modern slavery. A senior statistician at the Walk Free Foundation, an adjunct instructor at American University’s School of International Service and an AAAS IF/THEN Ambassador, Durgana develops models to track the number of people in forced labor and forced marriage and predict sectors and populations that are vulnerable to modern slavery.

Sacoby Wilson shared his efforts in service of environmental justice, “a social movement that looks at issues of how some communities, due to race, ethnicity, class, geography, are overburdened by environmental hazards,” he said. For Wilson, associate professor at the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health and the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, science is a means to an end to promote environmental justice and fight environmental racism. Gathering data and working with local communities can help mitigate the air and water impacts on marginalized groups from sites like concentrated animal feeding operations, dumps and incinerators, he said.

“To me, it’s important to do science that’s just not for the sake of science: science with a purpose, science for social change, science that focuses on action,” Wilson said.

Diana Yousef shared with ERN attendees her journey to finding a career that brought together her interests: science and technology, entrepreneurship and making the world a better place for her daughters. With half of all people lacking safe access to a toilet and girls particularly burdened by this, Yousef discussed sanitation issues in the developing world. Now the CEO of change:WATER Labs, Yousef’s company has developed a new type of toilet for use in places where running water cannot be depended upon. The “iThrone” uses a urine-powered battery to dehydrate solid waste, Yousef said.

Panelists encouraged ERN attendees to put their STEM degrees to use in service of important issues in their own communities and around the world.

“We look forward to seeing you as the future that carries on a lot of the work that we’ve begun,” Durgana told ERN attendees.

Networking opportunities at the conference also offered ways for students to highlight their own work, draw inspiration from each other and make connections with members of the ERN community.

A woman gestures to a scientific poster while two men look on
Students delivered hundreds of poster and oral presentations at the conference. | Michael Colella/Colella Digital

Students delivered more than 800 oral and poster presentations, Wagstaff said. Discipline-specific awards were selected by judges to the most outstanding presentations. For the third year in a row, the HBCU Making & Innovation Showcase recognized the innovative work of students. Teams of students and faculty advisers representing historically black colleges shared their science-backed solutions to address problems related to the United Nations sustainable development goals.

New to the agenda this year were two sessions that sought to foster connections among ERN participants: the Professional STEM Societies Working Group, which brought together representatives from several dozen professional STEM organizations to share best practices across disciplines to boost diversity, equity and inclusion; and the Working Group for Students and Professionals with Disabilities in STEM, which aimed to explore what has been successful and what has been missing for students and professionals as they pursue education and employment in STEM.

Mona Minkara, assistant professor of bioengineering at Northeastern University, called the event, at which attendees discussed issues like the importance of mentoring, “phenomenal” and “healing.”

A first-time ERN attendee who is blind, Minkara said she would encourage her students to attend next year. The entire conference, she said, was marked by “a general air of hopefulness.”

The working group – and the conference – is a space to bring together people who realize they have issues and experiences in common, said Laureen Summers, project director of AAAS’ Entry Point! program for college students with disabilities and the organizer of a working group.

Several attendees told the assembled group, “I don’t feel alone anymore,” said Summers.

[Associated image: Michael Colella/Colella Digital]