7 SACNAS Members Awarded HHMI Gilliam Fellowships for Advanced Study

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) awarded Gilliam Fellowships for Advanced Study to six SACNAS Graduate Student Members and one Lifetime Member: Aleena Arakaki, Jordan Brown, Sara Haile, Cody Hernandez (not pictured), Juanita Limas, and Lauren Thurlow (not pictured) were selected as Gilliam fellows; Dr. JoAnn Trejo was selected as Aleena’s thesis adviser.

The Gilliam Fellowships for Advanced Study are meant to support graduate students who are committed to increasing diversity among scientific leaders. HHMI takes a two-pronged approach: supporting students with the development of their scientific leadership and helping their thesis advisers build inclusive training environments. Out of 231 applications, only 45 doctoral student-adviser pairs received the fellowships.

“I was completely shocked when I received the email. Embarrassingly, I let out a high pitched squeal and yelled ‘I received the Gilliam fellowship!’ to my fellow labmates,” described Jordan Brown, SACNAS member and graduate student at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, “I honestly couldn’t believe they had chosen me and it took several days for the truth to really sink in.” These feelings of excitement and disbelief are shared among the fellows, all of whom are honored to represent and advocate for their communities.

Fostering Diverse Communities in and out of the Lab

This year, a portion of the annual award will support activities designed to foster diversity and inclusion in the mentors’ labs and departments. SACNAS member Aleena Arakaki, graduate student at the University of California, San Diego, hopes to use the training and support from the fellowship towards increasing recruitment and retention of students from underrepresented groups, “Given the large population of Native Americans in San Diego, yet lack of representation at UCSD, my mentor, Dr. JoAnn Trejo, and I would like to work on recruiting Native American students to participate in research at UCSD.”

Similarly, Juanita Limas, graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, proposed a program to recruit STEM students directly from local community colleges. She explained, “I used to teach at a community college for 7 years full-time and because of that experience, I know that community college students are often a population that gets overlooked in the STEM dialogues and that over half of all underrepresented students in the US come through the community college system”. With this in mind, Juanita hopes to  create a sustainable program in which local community colleges would train their students in biotechnology classes and then have those students conduct summer research at UNC-Chapel Hill, for a chance to network with PhD students.

Building Networks through SACNAS Chapters & Conference

All Gilliam fellowship recipients are students that have demonstrated their commitment to advancing diversity and inclusion in the sciences. For them, the importance of being able to connect and create a solid network of scientists from a common background is personal, because it was these connections that inspired them and motivated them to advance in STEM.

“I am part Native-American, but unfortunately I grew up in the South, where Native American culture has not flourished,” explained Jordan, “It was through joining the SACNAS chapter that I was able to meet other students from areas where the Native American culture had thrived. Meeting students with similar cultural backgrounds that were also interested in a scientific career affirmed my intent to apply to graduate school for biomedical sciences.”

“I attended my first SACNAS conference as a graduate student in 1990-1991” said Dr. Trejo, SACNAS Life Member and thesis adviser to Aleena, “[I] was amazed to find and get to know other scientists who shared a common background. This provided me with a community of scientists that I could really connect with and provided a strong support and network system that helped me succeed in science.”

SACNAS Chapters build Leaders

The Gilliam Fellowships also aims to prepare recipients with important leadership training, a skill that many recipients said was already being fostered through participation  in their SACNAS chapters and larger community.

Sara Haile, SACNAS member and graduate student at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, noticed a lack of support for minority students when she first started graduate school. She had a few friends from undergrad who had been a part of SACNAS, so she decided to start a SACNAS chapter between the Hopkins School of Medicine and the University of Maryland, Baltimore. “Starting a new group and a cross campus group from scratch was not easy…but through the process, we gained a lot of leadership skills and formed networks that were not only important for building our SACNAS community, but also for our science careers.”

Aleena believes her connections with SACNAS have inspired her to “continue to both act as a mentor for other young scientists as well as work to break down institutional barriers that make it difficult for underrepresented minorities to pursue graduate education”.

“If it wasn’t for SACNAS,” said Juanita, “I wouldn’t be at UNC and wouldn’t have had all the opportunities I’ve had, including leading our new UNC SACNAS Chapter as president…I’ve found incredible benefit by being a part of a scientific community of peers that shares my common experience as a first-generation Latinx student”.

Dr. Trejo added “SACNAS helped me guide my student to be a successful scientist and to be proactive in diversity initiatives. So, yes, SACNAS was pivotal in achieving this fellowship.”

Congratulations HHMI Gilliam Fellowship recipients!


Additional Notes:
Aleena would like to thank everyone who has supported her throughout the years and believed in her, especially her ‘ohana.
Juanita is incredibly humbled by this opportunity and plans to represent her lab, her community, and most importantly her family as best as she can. She also wishes her mother was alive to be able to see this, and hopes she is watching from heaven, proudly.


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