Of worms and a special love of home
Investigating basics of the nervous system and aiding his fellow Puerto Ricans
Robert A. Lisak
Daniel Colón-Ramos, PhD, associate professor of cell biology and of neuroscience, is the father of four girls—8-year-old triplets and a 2-year-old. As preschoolers, the triplets laughed when he told them he worked with worms, thinking it was joke. But Colón-Ramos has worked with Caenorhabditis elegans, a roundworm or nematode, for the past 15 years to uncover fundamental principles of the cell biology of the synapse (connection between neurons), and how they underpin animal behaviors.
Before studying neuroscience, in college Colón-Ramos conducted research on ethnopharmacology, specifically the use of medicinal plants by indigenous groups in Central America. In these studies, he became curious about the molecular processes behind traditional medicines, and he entered graduate school at Duke University to train in molecular and cellular biology. After earning his PhD, he decided to study the relationship between synapse formation and behavior.
Now in his lab at Yale, Colón-Ramos works with C. elegans to advance knowledge about the fundamental building blocks of the nervous system. “If you don’t understand [the basics], you’re not going to be able to get to the big questions,” he says.
From finding cells that promote synapse formation to identifying mechanisms responsible for neuronal communication, his early C. elegans work paved the way for his lab’s recent discoveries: how neurons convert sensory information into behavioral responses. His lab is using those findings to reveal the molecular substrates of C. elegans memory. He hopes further discoveries will lead to memory research advances in higher-order animals.
Although Colón-Ramos works with worms, his primary interest is people. Before beginning his career, he wondered whether research science was a selfish career choice. Growing up in Puerto Rico, he attended one of the island’s best schools on a scholarship, cultivating his interest in science through research programs. Aware of his fortunate situation, Colón-Ramos says, “I had a strong sense of social responsibility, I still do, toward where I come from, toward people who haven’t had the opportunities that I’ve had.”
At first, he says, by pursuing research science, “it felt like I was entertaining an interest of mine that wasn’t going to benefit my community [in Puerto Rico]. I completely disagree with that now.”
A transformative experience came when he accepted a position at Duke in the lab of Mariano Garcia-Blanco, MD, PhD, where he studied the architecture of the cellular nucleus and how it changes during organelle biogenesis.
“Working with a Puerto Rican professor, in a sense, gave me permission to pursue my passion,” says Colón-Ramos. “I thought if this person who has my background can belong to this community of scientists, then maybe there’s a space for me too.” Garcia-Blanco also taught him that science didn’t have to be, in Colón-Ramos’s words, “a zero-sum game.” He could make fundamental contributions to science and still serve his community.
After earning his PhD in 2003, Colón-Ramos went to Stanford for his postdoctoral fellowship, studying how neurons form circuits. There, he began a parallel career of science outreach work. In 2006, he helped launch the nonprofit website CienciaPR.org, which was created to connect Puerto Rican scientists and provide resources for all who are interested in science and Puerto Rico.
In 2008, Colón-Ramos completed his postdoctoral research and began interviewing for a faculty position. He chose Yale because, “they got who I was as a scientist, including the stuff that I do in Puerto Rico.”
While at Yale, Colón-Ramos has won recognition for his work, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science and the National Institutes of Health Landis Award for Outstanding Mentorship. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute has named him a Faculty Scholar.
He also has expanded his outreach work in Puerto Rico. In 2016, Colón-Ramos, with the late Carolyn W. Slayman, PhD, deputy dean for academic and scientific affairs, Sterling Professor of Genetics, and professor of cellular and molecular physiology, helped start an MD/PhD program between Yale and the University of Puerto Rico (UPR). Students from Puerto Rico earn their medical degrees from UPR and then attend Yale for PhD study. The partnership extends to the Yale Center for Clinical Investigation (YCCI) and the Puerto Rico Consortium for Clinical Investigation.
After 10 years at Yale, Colón-Ramos says he still benefits from the combination of academic rigor and personal support that brought him here. Through conducting research while staying involved in his community, “I found the way I want to be a scientist.”