Last Saturday, at the 25th annual HENAAC Conference led by Great Minds in STEM, Fidel Hernandez and Sandra Gonzales, winners of the Student Leadership Awards, demonstrated they are visionary in their research, resilient in the face of adversity, and most importantly, leaders that can inspire a generation of students into Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM).
“I struggled prioritizing my research, communicating with my peers, and doing my work efficiently. After a year in graduate school, I questioned whether a PhD was for me.”
This insight into Hernandez’s initial obstacle resonated with the audience, seeming to address why the vision and mission of the conference has persisted over the past 25 years. The path towards and through a career in STEM is littered with periods of self-doubt. Yet pushing through this uncertainty and staying in the program, Hernandez realized that he wasn’t fully appreciating the unique experience and the skills he was learning along the way. He realized that performing research and creating knowledge was an amazing honor and opportunity and with that, “began to value the scientific and societal contributions that [he] was making every day.” During this time, he learned three lessons that he felt important to pass on:
- Make yourself uncomfortable. In college, you have an amazing opportunity to find your passion and meet interesting people.
- Stay true to who you are. Don’t change who you are to emerge a winner; emerge a winner because you stuck to who you are.
- Not only follow your dreams, but believe they are possible. Find what drives you and pursue it relentlessly.
He finished his speech by reminding everyone that they are in fact fortunate:
“Remember that through our most trying times, we have a lot to be thankful for. For one, we’re all at this fantastic conference with the opportunity to meet others who can change our lives forever.”
The second winner and speaker, Sandra Gonzales, an undergraduate researcher at University of Arizona, reflected directly of her life experiences and how they’ve shaped her over the years. Growing up in Arizona, Gonzales, daughter of an immigrant, single mother who worked as a hotel housekeeper, learned quickly the value of hard work. With much resilience, she became the first person in her family to graduate high school. She would then attend University of Arizona, financed entirely by grants and scholarships. During those years, she was accepted into an NIH internship and published her research on “The Development of At-Risk Biosensor of Cardiovascular disease,” in Biosensor Journal. The experience and particularly the mentors along the way shaped the path she envisions for her future.
“In 10 years, I hope to become a professor. I want to have my own research lab so I can ask my own questions and mentor students just like the many mentors that have helped me along the way. I want to give back to the community because if it weren’t for the people who believed in me and let me work in their labs, I wouldn’t be where I am now. I am extremely grateful, and I think it’s essential to give back.”
In 10 years, she hopes to become a professor, developing technologies to treat and diagnose cardiovascular diseases because with a single device, she can impact the lives of millions.
The two individuals and their respective speeches capture the spirit that permeated throughout the entire conference, and particularly, the closing ceremony. Throughout the night, the excitement exuded by the college students, scientists, and engineers in the audience was intoxicating. Students at each round table bellowed chants in support of their teams. The sounds of “Who Dat?! … LockHEED!” reverberated off the walls of the ballroom throughout the night. The tempo of cheers and applause increased as hundreds of high-valued scholarships were announced, and culminated as the winners of the College Bowl, an academic competition between teams of college students, were revealed.
Great Minds in STEM builds a conference that addresses the struggles many people encounter on the path towards a STEM career and provides invaluable resources to the attendees. One of the most pivotal events was the career fair where top engineering companies (i.e. Boeing, Lockheed, Booz) brought an entourage of representatives to mentor, coach, and review resumes of the students attending the conference. This profound level of networking ensures that talented students are spotted quickly and matched to a challenging internship.
Next year, the HEENAC conference will come back to New Orleans. Many scholarships will again be available and I highly recommend college students apply for them here!