From Neurons to Nation Building

Frances Colón, PhD’04
Courtesy Frances Colon
Frances Colón, PhD’04

In the mid-1970s, Frances Colón, PhD’04, was just a toddler. The U.S. Department of State was still in Cold War mode. Hillary Rodham Clinton wouldn’t be secretary of state for three decades.

But by the time the Puerto Rico native was named deputy science and technology adviser to Secretary of State Clinton earlier this year, innovation had supplanted nuclear nonproliferation as one of the hottest topics on the State Department’s global scientific agenda. Today, Colón is charged with helping the world’s most powerful policymakers fuel sustainable economic growth through science and technology. 

Colón was well prepared for her new job — at the time of the promotion, she was State’s science and environment adviser for Western Hemisphere affairs, providing technical advice on how scientific and environmental issues affect U.S. foreign-policy objectives in the Americas.

“I was building partnerships with countries across the hemisphere to deal with climate change, sustainable forestry and clean energy,” she says.

Now, as deputy science adviser, Colón and her team are trying to marshal tools and talent from government, academia and nongovernmental organizations within the U.S. to help countries like India, Brazil and Indonesia find ways to capitalize on innovation to spur economic growth for 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 the lab to the market,” says Colón. “They want advice on how to do the same in their countries.”

Growing up in San Juan, Colón knew even as a child that she wanted to be a scientist.  She credits her mother, a single parent, with encouraging her to pursue her education as far as possible and advising her “never to depend on anyone for anything.”

Following graduation from the University of Puerto Rico in 1997, Colón entered the PhD program in developmental neuro­biology at Brandeis, eventually joining Professor Susan Birren’s lab to research the molecular signals that influence the development of peripheral nervous-system neurons — looking at how young nerve cells decide what type of neuron to become.

“But about halfway through my PhD program, I realized that I didn’t want to spend my life in the lab, though I wanted the highest possible degree in science,” says Colón, who had become involved in political campaigns in Boston’s Latino community. “My activist side was coming through.”

When Birren suggested she apply for a fellowship with the American Association for the Advancement of Science to work on science policy, Colón knew it would be possible to jump from the research lab to the laboratory of democracy. “This fellowship was a perfect way to marry my passion for science with my desire to help change the world,” she says.

U.S. scientists are generally considered an unbiased group, even in countries where relations with the U.S. are strained, Colón says. “Our scientists are sometimes able to build bridges of communication across the world through an issue that’s not political.”

As she wrestles with global challenges — like promoting low-carbon, sustainable economic growth in countries where advanced technology is spotty and infrastructure often obsolete — Colón draws on her scientific training at Brandeis.

“What we bring to bear on this process is the scientific-method way of thinking,” says Colón. “You analyze a problem, are transparent in your approach and your methods, and you share information and resources.”

In both democracy and science, Colón says, “we all have to come together and be transparent, and give our leadership the answers to make the best decisions.”               

— Laura Gardner