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Creating a chemistry pathway from Puerto Rico

Luis A. Colón started recruiting students from his alma mater to the University at Buffalo 27 years ago. Former students and colleagues have expanded that effort, creating a supportive chemistry community

by Andrea Widener
November 20, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 41


Luis A. Colón and Jesús M. Velázquez stand outside with a building in the background. They are looking toward each other and laughing.
Credit: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki/University at Buffalo
University at Buffalo professor Luis A. Colón (left) laughs with former undergraduate and PhD student Jesús M. Velázquez on a visit to the campus. Velázquez plans to replicate Colón’s mentoring techniques in his own lab at the University of California, Davis.

When he first got off the plane, Luis R. De Jesús Báez wasn’t sure what to expect from his summer research experience at the University at Buffalo. Then he was greeted by a graduate student who recognized him as Puerto Rican just from his shirt. Later that evening he was invited to a lively birthday party complete with Puerto Rican music. “I came to a corner of home. And it felt good,” he remembers.

De Jesús Báez is one of at least 70 students from the small, undergraduate-only University of Puerto Rico in Cayey to have conducted summer research in the University at Buffalo’s Chemistry Department. They were drawn there by chemistry professor Luis A. Colón, who started recruiting students from UPR-Cayey, his alma mater, soon after he started up his lab at UB in 1995.

Since then, that effort has expanded to create a community of UB chemistry students and graduates from Puerto Rico and beyond. Many have worked for Colón or other faculty in the Chemistry Department as undergraduate or PhD students. More than 35 Hispanic or Latino students, including 18 from UPR-Cayey, have received advanced degrees in chemistry or medicinal chemistry from the university since his recruitment efforts started, Colón says.

Nahyr A. López Dauphin stands in lab lab wearing protective equipment. The background lab equipment in tinted blue
Credit: Douglas Levere/University at Buffalo
Nahyr A. López Dauphin is a fifth-year graduate student in Luis A. Colón’s lab at the University at Buffalo. She appreciates the network that Colón has created that helped her explore jobs in industry.

“We hear a lot of ‘diversity and inclusion,’ ‘diversity and inclusion,’ but that’s sometimes the equivalent of ‘thoughts and prayers,’ ” says Nahyr A. López Dauphin, a fifth-year graduate student in Colón’s lab who originally came as a UPR-Cayey undergraduate. “But he’s actually walking the walk.”

Colón’s philosophy is to use hands-on recruiting and intense mentorship to encourage students who might doubt their abilities. Many students at Cayey don’t know anyone who is a scientist, says Wilfredo Resto Otero, a chemistry professor at UPR-Cayey, or they might not think they can be successful. “The mentoring that happens during these programs is really important for them,” he says. For some, “it changed their life.”

Recently, the effort bringing UPR-Cayey students to UB for summer research was recognized with formal funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The goal is to expand the effort’s reach from chemistry to other departments.

The program has already expanded beyond Buffalo. Sarbajit Banerjee, a former colleague of Colón’s, took UPR-Cayey students into his lab when he was a UB professor and continues to do so after moving to Texas A&M University. At the University of California, Davis, Colón protégé and chemistry professor Jesús Velázquez hopes to provide the same mentorship he received from Colón to students from Cayey and other Puerto Rican schools.

To really improve diversity within chemistry, scientists and universities “have to be in it for the long haul,” like Colón has been, Velázquez says. That support is the only way to “actually have students succeeding and graduating and occupying positions that are a great influence for our communities.”

Building the path

Like many students in Puerto Rico, Colón says he didn’t realize that research was an option when he graduated from UPR-Cayey with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1981. He initially went to work in the pharmaceutical industry, which has a heavy presence on the island. That experience showed him that he needed to go to graduate school. He got a PhD in chemistry at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and was a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University. Ever since, Colón has wanted to help UPR-Cayey students with “the type of advice that, perhaps, I didn’t have,” he says.


A group of 10 people stand in front of a wall. Most are undergraduate students wearing casual clothes. On the far right is professor Luis A. Colón.
Credit: Douglas Levere/University at Buffalo
Undergraduate students funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation stand with their graduate student mentors and chemistry professor Luis A. Colón (right) at the University at Buffalo in the summer of 2022.

But it wasn’t until Colón got his faculty position at UB that he had the chance to make that a reality. At the time, the university’s Chemistry Department wasn’t diverse. Colón was the only Hispanic faculty member, and there were no PhD or master’s students who were Hispanic either. So he saw an opportunity. Colón connected with a UPR-Cayey biology professor, Robert Ross, who had a National Institutes of Health grant to give a few students summer research experiences. Ross was able to direct some of that funding so students could travel from UPR-Cayey’s Chemistry Department to Colón’s lab in Buffalo.

From the beginning, Colón “worked really hard to create a very welcoming environment for his group,” says Glamarie Burgos Adorno, who also got her undergraduate degree from UPR-Cayey and became one of Colón’s first PhD students. Colón would take her along on trips to the university to recruit summer students for the next year, and she would mentor them when they arrived in Buffalo. She “was able to support other people in a similar way” to what Colón had done for her, she remembers.

They focused on second- and third-year students, hoping that summer research could convince them to consider new career paths, a strategy supported by education research.

Many students arrive at UPR-Cayey thinking they’ll go to medical school and that a research career is too hard. But once they have the “opportunity to show that they can do it, they feel comfortable doing it,” says Resto Otero from UPR-Cayey. Actually doing research “changes their mind.”

Wilfredo Resto Otero chats with five students. They are all sitting on stone steps.
Credit: Douglas Levere/University at Buffalo
Chemistry professor Wilfredo Resto Otero (left) from the University of Puerto Rico in Cayey visits students doing undergraduate research at the University at Buffalo in the summer of 2022.

Other students realize late in their studies that research is an option but aren’t sure how to make the transition. That was the case for López Dauphin, who decided in her senior year at UPR-Cayey that she wanted to do chemistry research rather than become a pharmacist, even though she had no laboratory experience. In her interview for the summer position, she admitted she was late to research but told Colón, “I just need someone to take a bet on me,” she recalls. Colón kept a straight face at first but in the end told López Dauphin she reminded him of himself at her age.

López Dauphin says Colón is a mentor not only in research but in other areas of her life as well. Seeing someone who looks like her, speaks the same language, and comes from the same place gives her confidence. “Every time I have a doubt—‘Do I belong here? Should I even be here?’—I see my boss,” she says, and she knows that she belongs. She already has a job lined up next year at Eli Lilly and Company.

That connection is especially important at the beginning of your journey, when you are facing so many big changes at once, says Natalia Rivera-González, another former UB PhD student. For example, “going from Spanish to English fully is a big change,” she says, and it helps to have a community of other Puerto Ricans around when she needs a mental break. Rivera-​González felt that support even though she wasn’t in Colón’s lab. As she settled in, she could provide that same backstop to newer students.

We are a big community . . . We try to help each other.
Natalia Rivera-Gonzalez, research scientist, Solvay

As more and more students have graduated from UPR-Cayey or UB and gone on to chemistry careers in industry and academia, they have been able to provide guidance to people earlier in their career who might need advice.

“We are a big community,” says Rivera-​González, who is now a research scientist at Solvay. “We try to help each other.”

Expanding its reach

When he was at Buffalo, Banerjee mentored some of the students Colón recruited from UPR-Cayey and saw their potential. He took that connection—and some of the students—with him to Texas A&M when he moved there in 2014. He continues to recruit UPR-Cayey students to his lab, sometimes trading students back and forth with UB for their summer research or PhDs.

“I’m very interested in having the whole range in my group,” says Banerjee, who also recruits from other racial and ethnic groups underrepresented in the sciences and from deeply Christian schools.

A group of people, including several babies, gather and look toward the camera.
Credit: Courtesy of Luis A. Colón
A group of people gather around a table with drinks in front of them. Luis A. Colón is on the left side of the table.
Credit: Courtesy of Luis A. Colón
Several former students and their families gather for a reunion of Luis A. Colón’s lab members in 2006 (top) and 2020 (bottom) in Puerto Rico.

Carlos A. Larriuz Rodrigues says his summer experience in Banerjee’s lab in 2021 convinced him to return there for his PhD. He had a Puerto Rican graduate student mentor who was able to answer many of his questions about what getting a PhD was like. It helped him confirm for himself that “I want to do this, I want to do a PhD,” he says.

At UC Davis, Velázquez hopes to replicate Colón’s model in his own lab and department. What makes Colón unique is his understanding that recruiting students is a long-term commitment, Velázquez says. Once students come to the university for summer research, Colón keeps them on his radar and encourages them, no matter what challenges they encounter.

Velázquez, who was selected as one of C&EN’s Talented 12 in 2021, went into industry after his undergraduate degree. He later decided to pursue a PhD in part because Colón continued to reach out. “Luis has developed a sort of a sixth sense of finding students that are really committed and in it to win it,” he says.

And those students don’t necessarily have to have the top grades or the top test scores—Colón gives them the opportunity to show their value in the lab. Velázquez says his own early education wasn’t great, which affected his initial undergraduate grades and early research opportunities. “Luis really was a catalyst for us in many ways,” Velázquez says.

With 2 years of funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation starting in 2022, Resto and Colón have been able to make an informal collaboration more formal. Their grant funds six students a year to do summer research at UB, and they have placed students in other departments, like biology, biomedical science, and math.

The advantage of a formal program is that it could prove that the recruitment system is successful at creating more scientists, which might provide the data needed to get larger grants. Puerto Rico produces a lot of students who are interested in science, Resto says, and he would love to see more of them know that a PhD is a possibility so they can have more career options.

Even without the grant, though, Colón says recruitment from UPR-Cayey to UB will survive because chemistry faculty members have seen the students’ success and are on board. At first, Colón said, he got pushback from faculty who didn’t want students without the top grades or GRE scores. “Now? I don’t think so,” Colón says.

The mentoring that happens during these programs is really important for them . . . It changed their life.
Wilfredo Resto Otero, chemistry professor at University of Puerto Rico, Cayey

Banerjee says he is still surprised when faculty who have seen so many succeed are skeptical of students who aren’t from top schools or don’t have top grades. “I still come across people that’ll look at my incredibly accomplished students and perhaps turn their nose up at the pedigree or something like that,” he says. He notes that his students often have multiple publications and awards when they enter the job market. “It’s just shocking to me how common that baggage is in our profession.”

Changing faculty members’ minds started in UB’s Chemistry Department, but the university as a whole has recognized the program’s importance, Colón says. But “it doesn’t happen overnight.”

UB is identifying other schools in other areas of the US or abroad where it could use the same model to recruit summer students and encourage them to return for a PhD, Colón says. “I can guarantee” that more students will move into science careers, he says.

De Jesús Báez, who was once uncertain about his summer at UB, plans to be part of that effort. After getting his PhD with Banerjee at Texas A&M, he took a job as a chemistry professor in UB’s Chemistry Department this year. Colón’s recruitment efforts inspire many of the people around him, De Jesús Báez says. “Anyone who interacted with him is now running a similar type of program or a similar type of change-driven environment in their institution,” he says.

Colón and the rest of the department have already taken the first steps toward improving diversity in chemistry by laying the groundwork for people from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups to feel comfortable at the school, De Jesús Báez says. And it feels as if Buffalo is committed to further expanding that effort. “All I felt coming here was I was with a family,” he says. “I want to keep propagating that.”


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