Second-year MD/PhD student Daniel Colón-Ríos first came to Yale the summer after his sophomore year, when he was a student at the University of Puerto Rico — Mayaguez Campus studying chemistry. During a summer research program run by Yale School of Medicine’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, now known as the Yale Biomed Amgen Scholars Program, he worked in the lab of Faye Rogers, PhD, associate professor of therapeutic radiology and associate director of the MD/PhD program. “I got a concrete perspective on what the MD/PhD program is, and I came back the next summer and decided to apply to programs in the U.S.,” Colón-Ríos said.
Although he wasn’t accepted the first year he applied, he returned to Yale as a postgraduate associate and one of the faculty members who interviewed him, David Stern, PhD, pathology professor and vice chair for basic and translational sciences, invited Colón-Ríos to be a part of Yale Cancer Center Cancer Biology Training Program. The program included a clinical mentor and clinical exposure.
“A lot of students saw their mentor once or twice a semester,” Colón-Ríos said. “I would go every week to join Dr. Asher Marks [assistant professor of pediatrics and director of pediatric neuro-oncology] in clinic. I wanted to do oncology. Shadowing him, I was more certain I wanted to do pediatric oncology.”
In addition to the time spent in the hospital, Colón-Ríos spent that gap year becoming more invested in the New Haven community, including volunteering as an interpreter at the HAVEN free clinic, a student-run primary care clinic that provides free, high-quality health care for uninsured adults in New Haven.
In 2019, Colón-Ríos applied again for MD/PhD programs and was accepted at multiple institutions. He chose Yale. The COVID-19 pandemic meant an almost immediate return to Puerto Rico, but now he’s back on campus, and helping to pave the way for other would-be MD, PhD, and MD/PhD students from underrepresented backgrounds as co-president of the Yale chapter of the Student National Medical Association (SNMA) and Latino Medical Student Association (LMSA). These organizations provide community and mentorship to minoritized medical students, work to combat inequities, and host science-based service activities.
“For first generation, low-income students, it’s really hard to see yourself in a position of power and prestige when you haven’t seen anyone like yourself in those positions before,” said Colón-Ríos. “We don’t have the same resources.”
The U.S. medical school application process was daunting, he said. “I knew no one, no friend, or Puerto Rican, who had applied to an MD/PhD program.”
It’s only through creating a network and being able to ask questions, said Colón-Ríos, “that you begin to see people and realize it’s not impossible.”
He said the Yale School of Medicine DEI Office, and advocates like Linda Jackson, director of the office of Diversity, Equity, Community Engagement and Inclusion (DICE), helped demystify the process.
“She’s one of the best advocates YSM has,” Colón-Ríos said. “She wants people to engage, to feel like they have space, and that they belong here.”