A Catalyst for Change

Luis Colon examining object with student in chemistry lab.

Photo was taken prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

How a generation of Puerto Rican chemists has thrived in Buffalo thanks to one mentor.

The handwritten names on the wall of Luis Colón’s lab at the University at Buffalo say it all.

These are the signatures of graduates who have earned their master’s or PhD through the lab. They are students of all races and backgrounds, and many of them might never have gotten the chance to study here were it not for the vision and commitment of their professor.

A bridge across the sea

When Colón, A. Conger Goodyear Professor of Chemistry, joined the university in 1993, he noticed how few chemistry PhDs were given to students from his part of the world.

“I decided to become active in recruiting Hispanic students,” he says. “I was just concerned that the opportunities were not there, and someone had to offer them, and I did.”

Colón began by connecting with his alma mater, the University of Puerto Rico at Cayey. There, he would give lectures on his research and afterward talk to students about the opportunities at UB. The partnership brought a steady stream of undergraduates to Buffalo to do summer research; many later returned for graduate school.

Over the decades, he has helped recruit dozens of students from his native Puerto Rico to study or do summer research at UB. About 20 now have advanced degrees in chemistry, mostly PhDs. These students have gone on to jobs at firms like Amgen, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Eli Lilly and Company.

Building bonds

It isn’t just Colón’s careful, patient instruction that has made his lab a launch pad for careers. A student’s social experience can be as important as their academic one, and Colón knows this. Through his lab, he hosts summer picnics, birthday gatherings, celebrations of individual accomplishments (e.g., passing oral examinations) and more. These all serve to create, Colón says, “a sense of belonging and camaraderie.”

He “always made sure that we felt important and that he included everyone,” says Ivonne M. Ferrer, one of Colón’s recruits who graduated from UB with her PhD in 2013 and is now an associate analytical manager for Corteva Agriscience. “If you’re part of Luis’ group, we’re all family.”