ACS Award for Encouraging Disadvantaged Students Into Careers In The Chemical Sciences | January 31, 2011 Issue - Vol. 89 Issue 5 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 89 Issue 5 | p. 64 | Awards
Issue Date: January 31, 2011

ACS Award for Encouraging Disadvantaged Students Into Careers In The Chemical Sciences

Sponsored by the Camille & Henry Dreyfus Foundation
Department: ACS News
Credit: Wilfredo Colón
Credit: Wilfredo Colón

Evidently, it’s not an uncommon story for today’s working chemists to have had aspirations of becoming physicians. Not uncommon, that is, until an inspirational teacher in a young person’s life catalyzed a change in plans.

That’s how it was for Wilfredo (Freddy) Colón, 45, who grew up poor in New York City and Puerto Rico. “Through high school, I was never exposed to a chemist or knew why chemistry was important,” he says. But when he attended a community college, “excellent chemistry teachers piqued my interest in chemistry for the first time.”

Then as an undergrad at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez, Colón was turned on to chemical research through his work with professor Maria A. Aponte, leading to his decision to pursue a doctorate. Colón received that Ph.D. in chemistry from Texas A&M University in 1993 and went on to postdoctoral research with Heinrich Roder at Fox Chase Cancer Center, in Philadelphia, as a National Science Foundation Minority Postdoctoral Research Fellow.

Now an associate professor in the department of chemistry and chemical biology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), Colón pursues his passion for involving students in research. Giving high school students an exposure to research and chemistry that he missed at their age has been one of his most rewarding experiences, he says.

According to Zaida C. Morales-Martínez, professor emerita with Florida International University and an ACS Scholars Program mentoring consultant: “Since Freddy joined RPI in 1997 he has been recruiting minorities for his laboratory and for the school. In this day and age where publications are so needed to earn tenure and full professorship, Freddy has taken time to write grant proposals to bring high school and undergraduate students to RPI for the summer to engage in honest-to-goodness research.”

One of those undergrads, Diane Bayron, was a junior at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez, when she learned that she’d been accepted into the summer research program at RPI. Like Colón, Bayron says that although she’s interested in medicine, she didn’t want to be a doctor, so biomedical research was perfect in her case. “The facilities in Colón’s lab are impressive, and the professor was always paying attention to my work,” she says. “The grad students always helped each other, and professor Colón was open to any question.”

Colón’s research focuses on understanding the role of protein stability in protein function, folding, misfolding, and aggregation. His group’s long-term goal is to understand the role of protein stability and aggregation in misfolding diseases and to engineer or design long-lived proteins for industrial purposes.

Colón says he is hoping to use funds from this award to start a program with a nearby community college “to provide counseling and research opportunities to students who might be in the same situation I was.”

Some of the awardee’s other honors include his 2007 election as an American Association for the Advancement of Science fellow, a 2000 National Science Foundation Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists & Engineers, and a Research Corporation Innovation Award in 1999.

As Morales-Martínez says succinctly, “This is a dedicated professor who is doing his part to change the face of chemistry.”

Colón will present the award address before the ACS Division of Biological Chemistry.

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