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A generation of Puerto Rican chemists has thrived in Buffalo with Luis Colón as a mentor

From left, Nahyr López Dauphin, Luis Colón and Josmely Vélez-González pictured in Colón's lab.

UB chemistry professor Luis Colón (center) has recruited numerous students to UB from Puerto Rico. Members of his lab currently include UB PhD students Nahyr López Dauphin (left) and Josmely Vélez-González (right) — both graduates of the University of Puerto Rico at Cayey. Photo: Douglas Levere

By CHARLOTTE HSU

Published February 28, 2020

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“Diversity is important because the experiences that we bring to a place start from the moment that we start growing up. They are different for everybody. And when you’re thinking about something, when you’re trying to solve problems, the way you think about it is really geared by what you learn. ”
Rafael Alicea-Maldonado, dean of math, science and career education
Genesee Community College

The names on the wall of Luis Colón’s lab say it all. Penned mostly in black ink, written by hand, some are recent. Others are from years back. Some are in block letters. Others announce themselves in striking cursive script.

Ivonne M. Ferrer Lassala, PhD. Karina Tirado González, PhD. José M. Cintrón, PhD. Lisandra Santiago-Capeles, PhD. Glorimar Vicente Crescioni, PhD.

And on and on.

These are the signatures of graduates who have earned advanced degrees through Colón’s lab. When students complete their master’s or PhD, they add their name to the wall in a signing ceremony, a testament to what they’ve achieved. In good times and bad, newer members of the lab look to the collection of signatures and imagine the day that they, too, will leave their mark.

The diversity of voices represented on the wall exemplifies one of the most meaningful parts of Colón’s more than 25-year career at UB, where he is the A. Conger Goodyear Professor of Chemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences, and associate dean for graduate and postdoctoral education in the Graduate School.

When Colón joined the university in 1993, “How many people were graduating with PhDs in chemistry who were Hispanic? My first year, we didn’t have any. Zero,” he remembers. “I decided to become active in recruiting Hispanic students. I was just concerned that the opportunities were not there, and someone had to offer them, and I did.”

Signatures of master’s and PhD graduates on the wall of UB chemistry professor Luis Colón’s lab.

Signatures of master’s and PhD graduates on the wall of UB chemistry professor Luis Colón’s lab. Photo: Douglas Levere

In the decades since, he has helped recruit dozens of students to Buffalo from his native Puerto Rico, a territory of the United States, to study or do summer research. About 20 have advanced degrees in chemistry, mostly PhDs. From Buffalo, these students have gone on to jobs in academia and industry, at firms like Amgen, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Eli Lilly and Company.

Among these successful professionals: Jesús M. Velázquez, PhD, who was the first in his family to attend college.

“To succeed in graduate studies, yes, you need talent, you need to have a solid foundation of fundamentals, but it’s also a game of stamina, right?” says Velázquez, who was recruited into UB’s PhD program by Colón. “How much can you endure? Luis recognizes that, and he’s always looking for students whose unique experiences will help them succeed.”

Velázquez, who earned his PhD in 2012, conducted postdoctoral research at Caltech and is now an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of California, Davis. While Velázquez did not work in Colón’s lab at UB, Colón helped recruit Velázquez, who considers Colón to be an important mentor.

“There are many success stories because of Luis’ vision,” Velázquez, says. “I am one of those students, and here I am with my own lab.”

A bridge between Buffalo and Puerto Rico

UB chemistry PhD student Josmely Vélez-González (left) works with a solution containing nanodiamonds. Her PhD research explores nanodiamonds as a potential material for systems that separate chemical compounds from one another. Her mentor, UB chemistry professor Luis Colón, is on the right.

UB chemistry PhD student Josmely Vélez-González (left) works with a solution containing nanodiamonds. Her PhD research explores nanodiamonds as a potential material for systems that separate chemical compounds from one another. Her mentor, UB chemistry professor Luis Colón, is on the right. Photo: Douglas Levere

In the 1990s, when Colón joined the UB faculty, he was a young chemist with fresh memories of his own PhD experience.

He knew the challenges, having lived them: Years of school. Long hours in the lab. The pressure of running experiments, some of which would be successful, others of which would fail. And, for students like himself who were from Puerto Rico but studying in the mainland U.S., the difficulty of being far from home, away from family and friends.

With all this in mind, Colón set out to recruit and retain new students that would bring their unique experiences to UB, promoting innovation by applying their knowledge and creativity to solving important problems in chemistry.

Colón began by connecting with his alma mater, the University of Puerto Rico at Cayey (UPR Cayey). He would visit to give lectures on his research in analytical chemistry and separation science, and while there, he would talk to students about the opportunities at UB. Colleagues in his department began doing the same.

The efforts grew into a partnership with UPR Cayey that brought a steady stream of undergraduates to UB to do summer research in chemistry, often with funding from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, which has also supported Colón's research over the years. Many of the summer recruits later returned to Buffalo for graduate school.

The mentoring started as soon as students arrived in Buffalo.

“Dr. Colón has been there for every single step,” says Nahyr López Dauphin, a UPR Cayey graduate who is pursuing her PhD in Colón’s lab, researching the applications of fibrous silica particles in separation science. “When I think I’m not good enough when I have doubts, Dr. Colón has been there to help.”

“Luis is a low-key guy who is not necessarily seeking fame and recognition for himself. He does tremendous work trying to help students succeed in their field, and personally as well. And that goes for people from every background,” says Rafael Alicea-Maldonado, PhD, dean of math, science and career education at Genesee Community College, and one of Colón’s first PhD students in the 1990s.

To help students succeed in their research, Colón listens carefully to their questions and talks them through problems, building their confidence as scientists. Outside the lab, he works to build community among students so they can support each other, preventing feelings of social isolation.

As he wrote in a 2017 article for an American Chemical Society (ACS) Symposium Series e-book on diversity in science, “Within the culture of my own research group, there are traditions such as summer picnics, birthday gatherings, celebration of individual accomplishments (e.g., passing oral examinations) and others. These aid students [in developing] a sense of belonging and camaraderie.”

Often, Colón will recruit at least two students from Puerto Rico to UB at the same time. “The sense of familiarity makes them feel they are not alone!” he wrote in the ACS publication. “With time, a community builds and students support each other, the more senior students become mentors for the new arrivals!”

“Having people who have been there before me that know where to purchase Goya items, who know where to go salsa dancing — it feels more homey,” says Ivonne M. Ferrer, who completed her PhD in Colón’s lab in 2013. “It’s almost like a home away from home.”

“All of the Puerto Rican students from UPR Cayey, we all know each other,” López Dauphin says.

That kinship has helped in recent years as Puerto Rico has faced extreme adversity, with Hurricane Maria devastating the island in 2017, massive protests forcing the resignation of the island’s governor in 2019, and a series of large earthquakes destroying homes and causing extensive power outages in early 2020.

Ferrer, now an associate analytical manager for Corteva Agriscience, says Colón’s lab felt like family, and that this connection extended beyond the students from Puerto Rico.

Colón “always made sure that we felt important and that he included everyone,” Ferrer says. “If you’re part of Luis’ group, we’re all family.”

A new generation looks to give back

UB chemistry PhD student Nahyr López Dauphin works with a high-performance liquid chromatography system. López Dauphin’s PhD research focuses on the use of fibrous silica particles as a material in systems that separate chemical compounds from one another.

UB chemistry PhD student Nahyr López Dauphin works with a high-performance liquid chromatography system. López Dauphin’s PhD research focuses on the use of fibrous silica particles as a material in systems that separate chemical compounds from one another. Photo: Douglas Levere

In 2015, Colón’s work as a mentor led him to the White House, where he met President Barack Obama, who named Colón as a recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring. He is also a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the ACS and the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Many current and former students remember Colón as the person who reached out to give them an opportunity at pivotal moments in their careers.

Years ago, Ferrer and Velázquez, who are now married, were working in industry when Colón emailed out of the blue to ask if they’d be interested in pursuing PhDs at UB. Both had previously conducted summer research in Buffalo.

“Luis emailed me randomly — actually, the email went to my spam,” Velázquez recalls. “Usually, when you go to your spam, you just delete everything, but for whatever reason that day, I see the name Luis Colón in one of my spam emails, and he’s telling me, ‘Hey Jesús, I know you worked hard during the summer, you expressed interest in grad school. There’s this program called Bridge to the Doctorate that’s funding students who are interested in doing PhDs. You should consider applying.’”

He did, and today, he’s on the faculty of one of the nation’s top universities. His lab focuses on creating materials for artificial photosynthesis and water remediation, and his research group is diverse. He’s working to give a new generation of students the same opportunity Colón gave him.

“There are numerous studies demonstrating that a diverse workforce is going to provide for more impactful results to solve very challenging problems,” Velázquez says. “We’ve made a lot of progress, but there’s still a lot more to be done.”

Josmely Vélez-González, a current PhD candidate, was a student at UPR Cayey when she interviewed with Colón, hoping to conduct summer research at UB. Vélez-González wasn’t selected for UB’s program, or for other programs she applied to at the time. The next year, she met with Colón again, and he remembered her.

“He interviewed me again, and he was the person who gave me the opportunity,” Vélez-González says. “I came here in summer of 2014, and that was right before my senior year in Cayey, and I liked it here. I saw people from India; there were Chinese students; there were students from Puerto Rico. The environment here in the lab was really good. Everyone was from somewhere different. You felt very comfortable.”

Over the years, students like Vélez-González and López Dauphin have helped to change the culture of the chemistry department. Colón’s colleagues now work as a team to recruit students from diverse backgrounds, weighing multiple measures of a student’s potential, such as their research experience and references from past mentors, in addition to grades and standardized test scores.

“After seeing the positive results, faculty start to realize all the uncovered potential,” Colón wrote in the 2017 ACS publication.

Of Vélez-González and López Dauphin, who also conducted summer research at UB, Colón says, “I encouraged them to apply for graduate school since I had noticed their potential in research when they were here at UB. They demonstrated hard work and commitment to the rigor of research in a graduate program.

“They rose to the challenge and learned the skill set necessary to be successful in graduate school. What is striking is the level of intellectual maturity the students have gained and the sense of responsibility toward research and the research team, while building confidence in themselves. They discover new opportunities and directions as they become more sophisticated in research. Their horizon has broadened.”

As the two work toward their degrees, they find inspiration in fellow lab members and in the successful students who came before. One day soon, they look forward to adding their names to the wall: Josmely Vélez-González, PhD. Nahyr López Dauphin, PhD.

READER COMMENT

Such important and inspiring work! Thank you Luis!

Raechele Pope