From science lab to Washington
Alumna becomes deputy science adviser to Secretary Clinton
Published: Saturday, May 19, 2012
Updated: Saturday, May 19, 2012 18:05
When considering a neuroscience degree, we commonly picture scientists conducting research in a lab. We don’t usually visualize them continuing on to careers in policy and influencing environmental and scientific global issues that affect daily lives. Frances Colón, who received her Ph.D. in Neurobiology from Brandeis in 2004, was always interested in science. She recently became the deputy science and technology adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Colón, together with her boss, Dr. Bill Colglazier, and their staff, is responsible for creating a dialogue about science and technology between the United States and countries around the world.
As the deputy adviser, Colón leads a staff of nine people, mostly scientists, with whom she writes policy papers and prepares briefings on foreign policy topics that are influenced by science and on science that is affected by foreign policy. She collaborates closely with agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey.
Before her current job, Colón acted as the science and environment adviser at the Western Hemisphere Affairs Bureau at the State Department, providing advice on scientific topics that affected U.S. foreign policy in the Americas. She worked on projects such as monitoring receding glaciers in the Andes mountains and other climate change and clean energy initiatives.
During her time with the Western Hemisphere Affairs Bureau, Colón wrote policies regarding climate change for President Barack Obama’s 2009 Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas. The program consisted of initiatives calling for collaboration with Latin America and the Caribbean in creating clean energy, the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change adaptation. President Obama announced the Partnership at the Summit of the Americas in 2009.
Colón worked on the Partnership from 2009 until she left the Bureau about a month ago to take on the new position as deputy adviser. “[This role] was important to me because it allowed me to create a lot of programs that were actually of use and were things that these countries actually needed and wanted to work with us on,” she said.
Born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, she attended the University of Puerto Rico as an undergraduate, where she majored in biology. While taking classes at Brandeis to complete her Ph.D. requirements, Colón enjoyed the quality of the classes she took, especially a Neuroscience class that “was a [composite] of the professors on campus in their different fields of expertise. We got to hear from many of the professors throughout the course. … So we got a chance to be taught by some of the best scientists in the neuroscience field.”
Colón studied under Prof. Susan Birren (BIOL), now the dean of Arts and Sciences, during her graduate work at the University. With Birren’s encouragement, Colón applied for the American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellowship in Science and Technology, which matches Ph.D. students with government agencies that need policy advising.
Colón was matched with an office in the State Department, where she worked for two years as an AAAS fellow. At the end of this period, she was given a permanent job as the science adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean. After working in this position for four years, she was offered the deputy position she now holds.
While she was in school, however, Colón pursued interests outside of neuroscience. She was very active in community organizing in Boston, such as political campaigns and advocacy groups. “I was always involved in a lot of things … outside the lab. I always knew that I wasn’t the typical ‘bench’ scientist and that there were other areas that I wanted to explore, but I also knew that I had a passion for science that I somehow needed to channel,” she said.
With the AAAS fellowship, Colón was able to combine all of her passions into one job, as it “married my interests in advocating for social issues, economic issues, political issues, with my passion for science, so I was able to bring all those together in the job that I do now,” she said.
Colón’s new job makes her the State Department’s highest-ranking Hispanic scientist. She explained the importance of this distinction, saying, “I’m very proud of the fact that I can not only represent my country … but that I can represent my community and my people, the Hispanic community. I’m glad I can be a role model for young women [and] young Latinas that may aspire to careers in science and math and engineering.”
“I’m hoping that they see that they can do this and that this is another opportunity or door that is open to them and that they can make a difference,” she continued. “I hope they can see that in me.”
Colón credits Brandeis with providing her with a “rigorous” environment in which she grew academically as well as felt compelled to get involved in her field outside of the classroom. She attributes this to the professors she encountered. “[The University] paired me with faculty that were very committed to the field of science … but it also allowed me the flexibility to explore other things,” she said.
“Many people told me that while I was expected to focus on my lab work and research … I was being encouraged to engage in other activities [to attain] a world perspective to what I was doing, which was how I got involved in political campaigns and community activism, which allowed me to make that jump from bench to policy,” Colón explained. “I think Susan Birren’s encouragement [and] the Brandeis community as a whole being encouraging of my branching out, led to where I am now.”