Neurobiologist becomes advisor to Hillary Clinton

Frances Colón’s education has taken her from Susan Birren’s lab to the State Department

Frances Colón ’04, deputy science and technology advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Scientific thinkers carry out their work not only in laboratories but also in government offices where policies they make can shape new laws, federal funding allocations and global collaborators.

Frances Colón ’04, who studied developmental neurobiology at Brandeis, stepped into such a role last month when she was named deputy science and technology advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Her primary role is promotion of science, technology and innovation dialogues. She is the highest-ranking Hispanic scientist at the State Department.

During her time at Brandeis, Colón worked in Susan J. Birren’s lab researching the signals that influence the differentiation and maturation of peripheral nervous system neurons – looking at how young neurons decide what type of neuron they will become. She also studied whether they could be reversed to make a cell of another type, or re-populate another area of the body.

So how does a laboratory scientist make a transition into policy, and why does Colón find it to be a perfect fit for her?

“What [we] bring to bear on this process is the scientific method way of thinking,” says Colón. “You are analyzing a problem and being transparent in your approach, your methods and are sharing information and resources.”

Colón says she sees similarities in the scientific process and the democratic process because in both arenas information and conclusions are shared openly, discussed and peer-reviewed, though in widely different ways.

“We encourage governments across the globe to enforce transparency in the same manner,” says Colón.

Before taking her new job Colón was the State Department’s science and environment advisor for Western Hemisphere affairs, providing technical advice on how environmental and scientific issues affected the U.S. foreign policy objectives in the Americas. Colón coordinated climate change policy for the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas, announced by President Obama in 2009, and was the lead negotiator for scientific cooperation with the region.

Colón says one of her most important current projects is developing a holistic innovation ecosystem strategy for global engagement. She and her team are trying to figure out all the tools within the United States — in government, academia, and non-government organizations— that can help countries incentivize innovation for their economic growth and the long-term benefit of their citizens.

“A lot of countries around the world come to the U.S. and tell us that we’ve done so well incentivizing innovation – taking products from lab to market,” says Colón. “They want advice on how to do the same in their countries.”

The project, which they call the U.S. Innovation Toolkit, addresses areas such as flexible bankruptcy laws and other strategies that have been successfully implemented in the United States. 

Colón’s foray into the political arena was serendipitous, and began while working in Birren’s lab.

Knowing Colon’s interests and strengths, Birren suggested that she apply to be an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow, a very competitive and coveted honor. Colón was chosen, and from 2006 to 2008 she independently managed the Secretary of State’s program for Muslim world outreach through K-12 math and science education partnerships, administering a foreign assistance program for teacher professional development and curriculum reform. The projects resulted in the training of more than 100 master trainers from across the Middle East and North Africa.

In addition, Colón developed long-term indicators for measuring the success of U.S. government initiatives and programs designed to encourage international science and technology cooperation.

After completing the AAAS Fellowship in 2008, Colón was hired as the science and environment adviser for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, where she designed and implemented the State Department's science and environment policy strategy for the Americas.

“The decision to go into science policy was the right one for my personality and the way I wanted to use my scientific background and skills,” says Colón.  “I think I am serving my country much better doing what I’m doing.”

Colón says that perhaps one of the most important things that she’s accomplished so far took place while working on the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas.

“I was the lead for the climate part of that partnership,” says Colón. “I was building partnerships with countries across the hemisphere to deal with climate-change adaptation, climate- change mitigation, sustainable forestry, clean energy and the like.”

Asked whether she feels taking action to slow climate change in the United States is an uphill battle compared to Europe, Colón said she feels climate change is a global challenge.

“Everybody has to be committed to this issue in order for us to be able to make a change,” says Colón. “I do believe the United States is committed to this challenge and to finding solutions, and that’s exemplified by the hard work that the State Department and the Secretary of State has certainly done in the climate change negotiations.”

While China has increased its production of alternative energy products like solar panels, they’re also one of the largest coal-based polluters. But Colón says that China has clearly shown that they are trying to find sustainable ways of growing and meeting the increasing demands of their citizens.

“They have very innovative programs in terms of clean energy, but the energy challenge is quite large,” says Colon. “I see them at these negotiations, and they’re trying very hard to put the right laws and policies in place.”

Colón and her colleagues meet with Clinton during weekly senior staff meetings. She says Secretary Clinton is extremely committed to furthering the country’s scientific partnerships around the world, and has used it as a tool of what the State Department calls “smart” diplomacy.

“When you think of the State Department, you normally don’t think of a bunch of scientists running around doing foreign policy,” says Colón. “But Secretary Clinton sees the value in having a cadre of scientists within the department that advise her.”

Colón says that U.S. scientists are one of the most accepted groups around the world, even in countries where there are strained relationships on other fronts.

“Our scientists are sometimes able to build bridges of communication across the world through an issue that’s not political,” says Colón.

Advice to Brandeis students?

“When mulling over career choices consider alternatives like science policy,” says Colón. “We look for fresh new points of view and talent to aid our decision makers to serve our society with science.”

Categories: International Affairs, Research, Science and Technology

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