Yale cell biologist nurtures science education in Puerto Rico

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Daniel Colón-Ramos

The science textbooks written by authors from the U.S. mainland said that to create static electricity, all you needed to do was to rub a balloon against your hair — but in the humid Puerto Rican air this did not work for Daniel Colón-Ramos and his fellow third-grade students on the archipelago.

“The message was that this is how you create electricity but it does not apply to you,” says Colón-Ramos, now assistant professor of cell biology at Yale.

The story from his childhood is one reason why he has created the social network site CienciaPR to help attract students to science, give them resources they need to succeed in the lab and, in the process, help foster a vibrant scientific culture in Puerto Rico.

When he launched the site, he expected a community of perhaps 40 or 50 students and scientists to participate. The site now boasts 5,300 registered members and on Sept. 24 hosted a conference at the University of Puerto Rico designed to offer advice to aspiring undergraduate and graduate students in the sciences.

CienciaPR had to cut off registration early because demand was so great.

Colón-Ramos, who serves as the director of the site, now works with seven volunteers from institutions such as Harvard, Ohio State, Morehead University and the Van Andel Research Institute to help keep the network current and flourishing.

The project has received strong backing by Yale faculty such as Lynn Cooley, director of the Combined Program in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences (BBS) and the C.N.H. Long Professor of Genetics.

“The BBS program is always looking for talented students from diverse backgrounds to come to Yale for Ph.D. training in the biosciences,” Cooley said. “Daniel’s excellent work with CienciaPR provides an exciting opportunity to attract great students from Puerto Rico and the wider Latin community.”

Originally, Colón-Ramos envisioned the use of social networking tools to facilitate Puerto Rican students accessing mentors and scientific resources in knowledge-rich centers, such as Yale. He hoped that other scientists from the commonwealth and the mainland would also sign up and mentor aspiring science students.

However, the site has taken on a life of its own. In addition to sponsoring the conference — which attracted corporate sponsors such as Amgen — CienciaPR is publishing a book of essays from and about Puerto Rican scientists around the world. The essays discuss science in lay terms, making it relevant and accessible to a lay audience in Puerto Rico.

For example, one of the essays, written by a Puerto Rican geologist, discusses evidence that demonstrates that the oldest geological formations in Puerto Rico were not “born” in the Atlantic, but in the Pacific.

“This is a context-relevant example of science and Puerto Rico. It calls into question our assumptions and ignites the imagination of students and the general public on the possibilities of what we can learn through science,” Colón-Ramos says.

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