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Chemistry professor honored by President Obama for excellence in mentoring

Luis Colón

By CHARLOTTE HSU

Published April 2, 2015

“He recognizes that the opportunity to practice science should be given to anyone who has the desire and the willingness to work.”
Valerie Frerichs, 2000 PhD graduate and lab director
Department of Chemistry

Luis Colón’s former students describe him as the teacher who always put them first.

He listened to their questions. He paid for them to go to conferences when funding wasn’t available. He encouraged young people of diverse backgrounds to pursue advanced degrees. He helped students who spoke English as a second language learn to write better, and hosted summer picnics at his house to help students from out of town feel welcome in Western New York.

But above all, the professor of chemistry taught his disciples to do science — really good science — enabling them to land jobs at academic institutions and firms like AbbVie, Bristol-Myers Squib, Eli Lilly and Company, Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer.

“My students are successful,” Colón said of why he enjoys mentoring. “That to me is very rewarding — that they are successful.”

For his work in nurturing the education and careers of young researchers, Colón was named by President Barack Obama on March 27th as a recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring. An award ceremony will be held in Washington D.C. at a later date.

As word began to spread this week of the presidential recognition, the humble, mild-mannered Colón has been fielding congratulations from people across the country — from his mentors, Richard N. Zare at Stanford University and Eugene Barry at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and from students all over the country and world.

Many still keep and touch and consider him a friend: For his 50th birthday, his former students planned a surprise party for him near campus and came from across the U.S. to attend.

“I didn’t think twice about it,” said José Cintrón, a 2003 UB PhD graduate who drove in from Indiana.

“For me, his door was always open to speak to me if I ever had any issues or problems,” said Cintrón, who is now a principal research scientist at Eli Lilly. “He was a great role model for me. He set an example by working hard, and I know that he has worked hard to open the door for young people, especially underrepresented minorities, to go into his lab and get their hands on some fun experiments and learn what it is to be a scientist.”

“He recognizes that the opportunity to practice science should be given to anyone who has the desire and the willingness to work,” said Valerie Frerichs, a 2000 UB PhD graduate who studied with Colón and is now a lab director for the chemistry department. “This mission is recognized by many people, and requires a lot of hard work to achieve, but he puts it into practice with the highest integrity."

Colón, UB’s A. Conger Goodyear Professor, joined the university in 1993. His achievements in mentoring include:

  • Creating a pipeline to enable students from his native Puerto Rico to study chemistry at UB. For 20 summers, Colón has brought undergraduates from his native Puerto Rico to Buffalo to conduct research. More than half a dozen of these students have gone on to enroll in UB’s graduate programs in chemistry, with four earning PhDs while working in Colón’s lab.
  • Co-founding iSEED at UB. Short for the Institute for Strategic Enhancement of Educational Diversity, iSEED builds on Colón’s success in chemistry to offer summer research opportunities to undergraduates in many STEM fields. The institute also helps to build a culturally and intellectually diverse academic community by providing professional development and support for graduate students. It is funded through the UB Office of the Provost’s E Fund.
  • Personally guiding the education of dozens of students, including many minorities. Colón has supervised and mentored 27 PhDs (17 of whom are from underrepresented groups and/or women); 14 master’s students (11 of whom are from underrepresented groups and/or women); and more than 35 undergraduates. He says he helped recruit more than a dozen Hispanic PhD students to his department, including the candidates from Puerto Rico.
  • Participating in existing programs that support underrepresented students in graduate programs. Over the years, Colón has been active with programs such as the Arthur A. Schomburg Fellowship Program and National Science Foundation-SUNY Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation.

The Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring is an acknowledgement of the number of lives Colón has touched.

“Our UB community is delighted to see Professor Colón receive this prestigious national honor — the most recent and very richly deserved recognition of his commitment to advancing diversity in the sciences and his dedicated mentorship of underrepresented students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels,” said UB President Satish K. Tripathi.

“This award also speaks clearly to his efforts to expand opportunities for students to gain valuable first-hand experience in cutting-edge research — from engaging students in the groundbreaking work being done in his own chemistry lab to encouraging them to pursue explore educational and professional opportunities far afield,” Tripathi said. “His leadership in all of these areas truly embodies the transformative educational experience UB aims to create for our students. We are thrilled to see that leadership continue to be recognized and honored at the highest levels.”

“UB is tremendously proud of Professor Colón for his efforts to expand diversity in STEM fields and for his outstanding support of students at UB,” said Charles F. Zukoski, UB provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. “Professor Colón is a model faculty member and it is wonderful to see him recognized through this very well-deserved award.”

Colón was nominated for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring by UB chemistry professor Joseph Gardella, a past recipient of the same honor. In addition to being recognized at the White House, honorees receive $10,000 from the National Science Foundation.

In more than two decades at UB, Colón has received numerous awards in recognition of his commitment to mentoring, including the 2009 Mentor Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the 2010 American Chemical Society Stanley C. Israel Award, and the 2012 Geoffrey Marshall Mentor Award from the Northeastern Association of Graduate Schools.

Prior to joining UB, Colón was a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University with Zare, and a graduate student with Barry at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Colón earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Puerto Rico at Cayey in 1981, and attended elementary and high school in Puerto Rico’s public education system.

He holds eight U.S. patents and has contributed to more than 100 research publications and delivered more than 180 invited lectures worldwide.

He credits his mentors with nurturing his success as a researcher, and says that seeing his students find their own paths in life — launching careers, buying houses, getting married, having children — is one of the most rewarding parts of his career.