Dr. Daniel Colón Ramos, a Puerto Rican scientist, associate professor at Yale University and a co-adjunct professor at the Institute of Neurobiology at the University of Puerto Rico, was recently selected to receive two important recognitions from of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), one of the leading scientific agencies in the United States.
The first prize given to Dr. Colón Ramos is the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award, which supports highly innovative scientists who lead bold research projects with an exceptionally broad scientific impact. The prize is awarded in recognition of the advanced studies carried out by Dr. Colón Ramos in the area of neuroscience. The second prize received is the Landis Mentoring Award for Outstanding Mentoring, a new award that recognizes excellence and leadership by professors who have distinguished themselves by training new scientists and serving as mentors.
In the ten years that Dr. Colón Ramos has been a member of the faculty at Yale, he has trained 27 scientists, most of whom have continued into impressive careers related to science. Altogether, the prizes reach a sum of $3.6 million, which Colón Ramos will use to continue his research in neuroscience, specifically to understand how the brain works and how memories are formed. The grant will also be used to promote the professional development of future young scientists in his laboratory.
As a Puerto Rican, it has always been very important to me that my work benefit my community. Although I was interested in science from a young age, as it came time for me to start making career decisions, I couldn’t see how, as a scientist, I could positively impact my community. In part, this was because I was not sure what it meant to be a scientist. I initially gravitated toward a career with direct applications to health in my community, such as medicine or social justice work. However, over the course of my journey, I came to realize that the best way to give back was to follow my passion and use my skills, knowledge, and ties to benefit communities that are underserved in the sciences.
One of the big turning points in my career came after college. During college, I merged my interest in science with my interest in social justice by working on ethnobotanical projects such as studying the use of medicinal plants by indigenous communities in Central America. But my mind always returned to the basic science; I itched to know how these medicinal plants were actually working. Although I had an opportunity to pursue a Fulbright to continue similar work after college, I was still unsure. I didn’t have the training to do the work as effectively as I wanted to, and I felt I wasn’t taking advantage of my intellectual interests, knowledge, and connections.
Around this time, I reached out to a Puerto Rican scientist, Mariano García-Blanco, who had graduated from my high school in Puerto Rico (Colegio San Ignacio) and was a professor at Duke University. We had a long conversation about my career trajectory, plans, and concerns. He told me that while he could not answer my questions, he could offer me the opportunity to work in his lab at Duke University for a year to experience full time research and figure out the answers for myself.
This experience cemented my desire to continue in science. I decided to enter the Ph.D. program at Duke, and joined the lab of Sally Kornbluth. From Dr. Kornbluth, I learned how to identify important research questions, design experiments, and structure the work for publication. I ended up seeking out and establishing a lot of collaborations during graduate school while pursuing my research questions of interest. If I had to define one thing that helped me during those early experiences, was to seek out advice, and learn, from the best.
Over the course of my career, I have come to realize that scientists occupy very powerful positions in terms of knowledge creation, distribution of knowledge, and training. Contrary to what I feared as an undergraduate, I have found many ways to impact communities that are underserved in the sciences. I have worked to increase access to science through initiatives like Ciencia Puerto Rico, a non-profit organization that promotes scientific research and education in Puerto Rico.
In my own lab, we value diversity because it benefits the science to include different perspectives in our work. So far, I have mentored two students—Luis Martinez Velazquez and Lucelenie Rodriguez Laureano—who have also taken advantage of NINDS diversity supplements to launch their careers and to push important lab projects forward. NINDS funding mechanisms have now benefited the next generation of scientists, and continue to benefit my lab and our research.