A Brandeis University graduate has become the highest-ranking Hispanic science official at the U.S. Department of State, as she was named deputy science and technology advisor to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last month, according to the university.
Frances Colón, who graduated from Brandeis in 2004, will now promote science, technology and innovation dialogues in Washington, D.C.
During her time at Brandeis, Colón studied under Susan Birren, a biology professor who recruited Colón into her lab for research on peripheral nervous system neurons.
Colón told the university recently that she sees similarities in the scientific process and the democratic process, as in both information and conclusions are shared openly, discussed, and peer-reviewed, though in widely different ways.
"What [we] bring to bear on this process is the scientific method way of thinking,” Colón told the university. “You are analyzing a problem and being transparent in your approach, your methods and are sharing information and resources.”
While working in the lab, Birren encouraged Colón to apply for an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship, a very competitive and coveted honor, according to the university.
Colón was chosen. 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.
After her fellowship, 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,” Colón said. “I think I am serving my country much better doing what I’m doing.”
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, according to the university.
Colón said 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 create incentives for innovation for their economic growth and 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,” Colón said. “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 told the university 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.
She also advised current science students to consider options outside the world of strictly research and academia.
"When mulling over career choices, consider alternatives like science policy,” Colón said. “We look for fresh new points of view and talent to aid our decision makers to serve our society with science.”
Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org