Biochemist Wilfredo (Freddy) Colón studies the intricate world of proteins–how they fold, twist, and turn, and how, when something goes wrong, their contortions can cause diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Lou Gehrig’s, and Parkinson’s. Yet, if he hadn’t seen a small bulletin-board flier for an undergraduate research opportunity 20 years ago, Colón (pictured left, with students) might not be working on such weighty problems today. Nor would he have introduced countless high school and undergraduate students to exciting careers in science.
Proteins are made of chains of amino acids. Drop these chains into water (and our body is about 70% water), and they fold into unique three-dimensional structures. It’s these unique structures that determine the roles proteins play: transporting oxygen, building hair, making muscle, and myriad other functions. Colón, 41, is trying to understand how a distinct sequence of amino acids determines a protein’s structure, including the folds and misfolds. It’s important, he says, because misfolded proteins often clump together, forming insoluble deposits that cause toxicity and disease.
Neither of Colón’s parents finished high school, but their support helped propel him to scientific success. Colón was born in Brooklyn and lived there for 10 years before his parents decided to return to their native Puerto Rico. “We lived in a not-too-good neighborhood,” says Colón, and his parents worried that he might start running with the wrong crowd. They decided that living near their extended family in Puerto Rico would help him stay straight. All along, they promoted education. “Having lived in poverty, they warned me about the consequences of not studying,” he says.
Summer research opportunity
There were no doctors in his family, but his frequent hospital stays for asthma primed him for the field. “I always wanted to be a doctor,” he says. So he enrolled in pre-med studies at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez. In his second year, he saw that pivotal bulletin-board notice–an advertisement for a summer research position in the lab of Maria Aponte, a professor in the chemistry department. “It opened my eyes to something that I never knew existed,” Colón says. “This idea of research was foreign to me. I’m sure that had it not been for that opportunity, I would not be a scientist today.”
Aponte hired Colón to repeat her thesis work on the synthesis and characterization of polymers related to DNA, including aspects of the work that she had never had time to explore in depth. She was impressed with Colón’s organizational skills, enthusiasm, and attention to detail.
In his third year, Colón switched majors from pre-med to chemistry and continued to work with Aponte. He was one semester into a master’s program at the university in Mayagüez when he walked by another life-changing bulletin board. From the colorful posters for U.S. universities, he learned that he could go directly from a B.S. degree into a Ph.D. program and finish in 5 years. That was the incentive he needed to apply to five or six U.S. schools, “just in case I was accepted,” he says. At first, he was afraid to tell Aponte he might leave her lab. “Any time a student leaves, it’s a big loss to a lab,” he says. But Aponte supported his decision.
Colón was surprised at how quickly Texas A&M responded. “I don’t think it was a week after I had submitted my application when I received a letter back of acceptance,” he says. “I was so amazed and impressed that I was automatically biased in favor of Texas A&M.” In 1988, he withdrew from his master’s program and moved to College Station, Texas, about 100 miles northwest of Houston.
Everything came together easily, he says–the only problem was that he had his heart set on studying medicinal chemistry, “even though, in my naiveness, I didn’t know exactly what that involved,” he says. He suspected that it would allow him to combine his love for research chemistry with his enduring passion for medicine and health.
With that phone call, Colón became Kelly’s first graduate student. “Freddy was proactive in seeking me out, and I’m very much the beneficiary of his initiative,” says Kelly, who has since gone on to gain prominence in the field of amyloid disease and is now vice president of academic affairs and dean of graduate studies at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, California. Colón’s brand of gumption is rare, Kelly says, adding that more students should follow his example and contact researchers whose work excites them.
When Colón received his Ph.D. in 1993, he knew that he wanted to continue researching the role of proteins in misfolding diseases. “I had a hunch that protein folding was going to be a very important field,” he says. So, he moved to Heinrich Roder’s lab at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he spent four years as a National Science Foundation Minority Postdoctoral Fellow studying the biophysics of protein folding.
Encourage students to become scientists
Today, Colón is an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, N.Y., where he has been teaching and mentoring since 1997. He had opportunities in industry, but he chose academia because he liked the environment and wanted to have his own lab where he could encourage students to become scientists.
“My experience is that not very many students actually understand what a scientist really does and what a career in science is,” he says. “So my main goal is to inform them and at least motivate them to investigate.” He does this by organizing and leading summer research programs for minority high school students and by running a vibrant lab that engages undergraduate students in research.
From 2000 to 2003, Colón directed summer research programs for minority high school students with support from RPI and the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation. In 2006, he co-directed a summer research program for minority undergraduate students that brought 19 students to the RPI campus, including 12 from Puerto Rico and 6 from historically black colleges and universities. The program was funded by RPI, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and participating faculty. In 2007, the same program will bring 15 minority undergraduate students to Troy for a summer research experience.
Since 1998, Colón’s lab has provided training and research opportunities for 30-plus undergraduate students. Most of them have gone on to graduate programs at top universities. “I felt that just as I had found science through an undergraduate research experience, I wanted to have a lab where I could provide that research experience to other students,” he says. Students respond to Colón’s winning mix of approachability, scientific challenge, and supportive mentoring, says Linda McGown, head of Colón’s department at RPI. “There’s no shortage of people who want to work with him. He invests himself in the success of his students.”
In his role as director of graduate studies for his department at RPI, Colón has parlayed his Puerto Rican connections and his commitment to outreach into an increasingly diverse student body. “Freddy has been hugely helpful to the department in this way,” says McGown. “He’s very active in finding innovative ways to reach out and attract new students. This diversity enriches everyone–students, faculty, and the institution.”
Colón has the potential to be a leader in biochemistry, Kelly says. “He’s still quite young, but he’s already made major contributions to the field.” His youth also makes him a powerful role model. “Students can still connect with him, and then as they see his career emerge, they can start to believe, ‘Yeah, I can really do that too.’ ”
None of this comes as any surprise to Aponte, Colón’s first scientific mentor. “It was 20 years ago, but looking back I can say that … I was sure that Freddy would go far. I’m glad to say that in my appreciation, I was right all along.”