As Hispanic Heritage Month concludes, we took a look at the contributions in science and technology from Puerto Rican professionals. Two distinguished scientists who have not only excelled in academic and research spaces but have also paved the way for scientific advancement are Daniel Colón-Ramos and Rafael Irizarry.
Colón-Ramos hails from Puerto Rico, between the towns of Guaynabo and Barranquitas. He completed his BA at Harvard University, his PhD in the lab of Dr. Sally Kornbluth at Duke University, and was a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Dr. Kang Shen at Stanford University. Today, Colón-Ramos is the McConnell Duberg Professor of Neuroscience and Cell Biology at Yale University School of Medicine, where his lab studies the cell biology of the synapse during development and learning. His research in 2008 delved into the cell biology of synapses during development and learning, with a particular focus on understanding the mechanisms behind memory formation.
Colón-Ramos’s commitment to education began before his professorship at Yale. In 2006, Colón-Ramos founded Ciencia Puerto Rico (CienciaPR) a nonprofit aimed to connect Puerto Rican scientists across the diaspora, promote scholarly interaction, platform Puerto Rican scientists, and support research and education in Puerto Rico. CienciaPR’s impactful work was recognized as a Bright Spot in Hispanic Education by the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics in 2015 and was named Science Defender by the Union of Concerned Scientists in 2018.
As CienciaPR moved into more project-based learning, others took notice. In 2015, the Yale Ciencia Initiative was launched using CienciaPR as a model to encourage students from Latino backgrounds at Yale and beyond to study science. Colón-Ramos’s contributions to STEM outreach for both the diaspora and residents of Puerto Rico are immeasurable.
In 2013, he addressed the lack of accountability and the need for public health interventions in Vieques, where residents faced health challenges due to military contamination with pollutants like mercury and napalm. That same year, he co-authored an op-ed for PBS with CienciaPR collaborator Guerrero-Medina, using scientific evidence to advocate for LGBT rights in light of a Puerto Rican Supreme Court ruling against the adoption rights of a lesbian couple.
Rafael Irizarry, another Puerto Rican scientist, has paved the way over the last decade. Irizarry is professor and chair of the Department of Data Science at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Professor of Applied Statistics at Harvard. After receiving his Bachelor’s in Mathematics in 1993 from the University of Puerto Rico, Irizarry went on to receive a PhD in Statistics in 1998 from the University of California, Berkeley.
He remained open-minded throughout his career, as he worked and co-authored papers on a variety of topics, including musical sound signals, infectious diseases, fetal health monitoring, and even estimating the effects of Hurricane María in Puerto Rico. Today, much of his research focuses on Genomics.
Irizarry is most known for founding the Bioconductor project, a free and open-development software project for the analysis and comprehension of genomic data. This software has become a cornerstone of genomic research and has earned him recognition as one of the most highly cited scientists in his field. However, Irizarry’s true passion lies in education. He developed and teaches the online Data Analysis for Life Sciences course at Harvard University, enrolling over 30,000 students annually. Notably, he shares course textbooks freely with his students and makes reproducible code available through GitHub.
The achievements of Daniel Colón-Ramos and Rafael Irizarry stand as shining examples of Puerto Rican excellence in the fields of science and technology. Their dedication to education and outreach has had a lasting impact, fostering diversity and inclusivity within the scientific community. Their stories remind us of the significant contributions that Hispanic scientists continue to make on the global stage.