Use Your Summer Research to Maximize the SACNAS Conference

By John Augusto, PhD

Research presenters at the 2015 SACNAS Conference.

Success leaves clues. This is one of the main lessons I have learned from my 15 years attending the SACNAS National Conference.

Each year, I talk with students about their research projects, what they want to do in the upcoming summer, or their plans for graduate school. The students who stand out in these conversations are those who successfully engage with the conference. The student who successfully engages is the student who is prepared to be an active participant.

Dr. John Augusto

Whether discussing a summer research project at the poster session or over lunch with a table full of faculty and students from another institution, attending a workshop on working with a faculty mentor, or finding the right graduate school program — the engaged student comes to SACNAS ready to participate fully and take the next step toward a STEM career. How can you be an engaged student at the SACNAS conference? How can you find the clues from people who have succeeded before you?

Identify and observe someone who has succeeded, emulate the behaviors, and you will create that success for yourself.

For example, I have a friend who trains people to run marathons. One training exercise he does with new students is to pair up the new runner with an experienced runner. The experienced runner shows the new runner how to breathe when running fast, how to run slow at the start, and how to focus at the end of the race. The experienced runners are not there to impress the novices, but rather to impress upon him or her the importance of how to act, think, and feel like a capable marathon runner.

What does running have to do with SACNAS? If you have completed a summer research experience, like the long-distance athlete, now is not the time to rest. Now is the time to extend that experience and realize its full potential at the SACNAS conference. If you have not yet completed a summer research experience, use SACNAS to find an “experienced runner” who can help you see the importance of summer research. Either way, before you start packing your bag for the SACNAS conference, I want to offer you seven steps to help you prepare for successful engagement.

Step 1: Listen to your mother, use a napkin

Every scientist needs to be able to communicate research to different audiences. Get ready to talk about your research at SACNAS. Get a three-inch-by-four-inch napkin (or an index card). Explain your research on the napkin. Your mother told you to use your napkin to keep you tidy; you should use this napkin to keep your description tidy. Practicing describing your research quickly and simply is like practicing your manners — the more you do it, the better you will get.

Step 2: Play nice when you are in someone else’s house

The mentors who hosted you this summer put a lot of work into making your experience a successful one. Whether it was a transformative experience that changed the way you thought about yourself as a scientist or an experience that taught you what kind of research you do not want to do, remember that you spent the summer in someone else’s house. When you talk about your experience at SACNAS, focus on the positive aspects of the university and your experience there.

Step 3: Look for the people in your corner

You have people who are cheering for you in your corner; if you are not sure who they are, take a good hard look. Your summer research experience hopefully added one or more individuals to your cheering section. Follow up with your summer research mentor(s) and tell them you are attending the SACNAS conference. Send them a copy of your presentation. Ask if they (or someone from their university) will attend SACNAS. Meet them for lunch. Go to the booth in the exhibit hall and introduce yourself to the staff and students. I am always thrilled to visit with students who spent a summer on my campus, and often find I can help make another university connection after visiting with them. You will find your cheering section growing quickly at SACNAS if you engage with your connections.

Step 4: You can dance without looking at your feet

When I was child, I learned how to dance from my 70-year-old grandmother. She would lead me through the steps and I would follow; then I would lead and she would follow. The entire time, she would tell me not to look at my feet. She would say I just needed to feel the music and know where I was going. As an aspiring scientist, you need to learn how to trust your career aspirations — not by looking down at where your feet are, but by listening to where the music takes you. Your summer research experience taught you the need for inquiry, the need to ask questions, and to be comfortable with a certain amount of uncertainty. Before you leave for the conference, I would encourage you do a career map. On a blank piece of paper, draw out where you are now, and where you want to go. Add what you think you will need in order to move along this map, but don’t worry about all the details. Leave blanks where you are uncertain what are the next steps. Listen to the music at SACNAS, and when you return home, you will find you can fill in a few of those blanks. Seeing is believing, and you have to learn how to trust your steps without always watching your feet.

Step 5: Know your right from your wrong

Shakespeare once wrote: “Nothing is good or bad, thinking makes it so.” I have seen many students come to SACNAS with doubtful thoughts about their identity as scientists. You may think that these doubts mean you don’t belong.

The truth is, everyone has doubts.

What you have to do is weigh the evidence and think like a scientist — the evidence is that you have completed a summer research experience. That affirms your place as a researcher (even a beginning one). And just like your choice is to have doubtful thoughts, you can choose to have empowering thoughts as well. Know that the right way to approach the conference is to seek out opportunities and then follow up on those opportunities after the conference. A cup of coffee and a conversation at a SACNAS breakfast can lead to many other opportunities after the conference; you just have to affirm your beliefs that you are right where you should be.

Step 6: The map tells you where to go, but not how to get there

The SACNAS community works hard to provide students with a map for how to become a successful researcher. But your map can only be completed by you. Remember that you are at the beginning of your journey into new territory. Sometimes you don’t have all the information or knowledge. It’s okay, and good, to say, “I don’t know.” This simple statement is an opening for a conversation. It allows the people around you to join in your conversation and together, to look for signs about what the next steps might be. SACNAS will give you the map, but you need to work on how to get where you want to go.

Step 7: A good cookie is always better when it’s shared with someone

If you have not done so already, start sharing what you learned in your summer research experience. Whether it’s a blog about the research experience, a tweet to your friends at the conference, or a poster presentation at the conference, you need to share with others.

Talking about your science and your research has moved you forward in your career as a young scientist.

The SACNAS conference is a great place to communicate your science, but only if you are willing and able to share it with others. The difference between attending the conference and being a SACNISTA is your willingness to engage and share with your community. For more ideas on sharing your research, go to

Heading to SACNAS?

Don’t pack your summer research experience away in a closet. Continue to unpack it, even if your research interests change directions. The experience is one of many steps in your career, one of many steps toward joining the scientific community. Use it to help you identify and find the next step, the next opportunity to take you further down the path toward your goal. Then next year, you can come back and tell the SACNAS community how you plan on using your experiences in your scientific career.

About Dr. John Augusto

Dr. John Augusto is the director for the Center for Undergraduate Research at the University of Kansas, where he received his PhD in 2009. Dr. Augusto has been involved with SACNAS since the 1996 SACNAS National Conference and his work affords him the opportunity to support students and faculty interested in conducting research.

Originally published at