This story comes to us from NBC Latino.
Latinos make up around 25 percent of the population, but they earn only 7 percent of the masters degrees in science and engineering, and a little over 3 percent of PhDs, according to the National Science Foundation.
So how do you get more Latinos to pursue doctorates and careers in the sciences? If you are Dr. Luis A. Colón, Chair of the Chemistry Department at the University of Buffalo and the recipient of one of the highest mentoring awards in the nation, you go find the students yourself.
“I start by going to universities, some in Puerto Rico, and convince students to come work in our lab for the summer,” says Dr. Colón, who received the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Mentoring Award. The non-profit Excelencia in Education recently recognized the University of Buffalo’s chemistry department as one of the country’s top programs for increasing graduate-level Latino degree completion. Excelencia in Education’s president, Sarita Brown, said Colón’s department was at the forefront “of improving higher educational achievement for Latino students.”
Colón explains that many Hispanic students who have an undergraduate interest in science think the only logical path is medicine, which is expensive and not possible for many students.
“So I found some students who thought the only choice after a bachelor in science was med school or to go work at a restaurant,” says Colón, “until they got to our lab.” Once these Latinos were exposed to hands-on work in nanotechnology, sensor technology, even new methods to detect glucose in blood - they were hooked. In a little over a decade, Dr. Colón, who holds 8 U.S. patents and is the author of over 100 publications, has mentored almost a dozen PhDs in chemistry. Considering that Latinos still make up only 3 percent of science and math PhDs, Dr. Colón’s contributions have been nationally recognized.
Dr. Colón understands the roadblocks that might lead some Latino students to not even think of an advanced degree in science. He was one of them.
“When I had finished my bachelors I told my parents I wanted to get an advanced degree,” recalls Dr. Colón, who grew up in a modest family in Cidra, Puerto Rico. “My parents wanted to know why I was not working on getting a job, and how would I pay for it?” he says.
But here is the thing Dr. Colón says many families do not know. “If you enter a PhD program in chemistry, or physics, or biotechnology, you are actually given a stipend or small salary while you pursue the degree,” he explains. ”It is not like medical school."
Dr. Colón adds that the stereotypes many Latinos hold about what it takes to be a “science person” or a career scientist are not true at all. ”For one, we think Latinos don’t do well in science,” Dr. Colón says. ”Another stereotype is that it’s a lonely life, and you are always stuck in a lab.”
That certainly does not seem to be the case with some of the professionals who were mentored by Dr. Colón. ”Our PhDs have gone to work for pharmaceutical companies such as Abbott, Eli Lilly and Pfizer, among others,” he says. What is even more exciting, Dr. Colón says, is that his lab has acted as a career pipeline - after one of his PhDs went to work for a drug company, the company came back to hire more of Dr. Colón’s students.
José Cintrón, a research scientist at Eli Lilly in Indianapolis, was one of Dr. Colón’s students. Cintrón grew up in upstate New York. “I don’t remember growing up knowing any Latinos in science,” recalls Dr. Cintrón, adding that “in fact, most Latinos in my neighborhood did not even make it to college.” But Cintrón was encouraged by a wrestling coach and science buff who saw that he had potential, and encouraged him to apply to the University of Buffalo. “When Dr. Colón came in, he started recruiting kids from Puerto Rico and other Hispanics in the mainland,” Cintrón says. ”And he didn’t treat us any differently, if anything, I feel he was almost harder on us,” he recalls with a smile. Dr. Colón convinced Cintrón to continue on to his PhD, and Cintrón now has a successful career researching new compounds to combat and maybe even cure diseases.
Dr. Colón is proud of the role he played in Dr. Cintrón’s career, and continues mentoring budding Hispanic and minority scientists. He is part of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund Alumni Hall of Fame, since he himself received a scholarship from them to pursue an advanced degree. He was presented with the “Optimista” Award, given to a person who has achieved success despite his past circumstances or background. Perhaps that is why Dr. Colón does more than teach in the lab.
”I recently had a Three Kings party in my house for all my students,” he says, laughing, proving that making the world of advanced science a reasonable and rewarding life pursuit is a great way to add more Latinos to the ranks of advanced science.
Sandra Lilley is a reporter at NBC Latino.
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