AAAS Member Frances Colón, Ph.D., is in the business of shaping histories.
It’s a vocation that grew roots aboard an airboat in Florida’s everglades in the late 1980s, when the science diplomat and neuroscientist first realized the depth of humankind’s relationship with nature.
A class fieldtrip to the grassy wetland fanned the flame of Colón’s fascination with science, one that has carried her across states, oceans, and all the way to the State Department and the White House as an advisor.
Today, she is the Senior Director for International Climate Policy at the Center for American Progress where she manages a team driving ambitious, global action to mitigate climate change — work that she says is rooted in her desire to positively shape the histories of future generations.
“I'm a person who chose my career path in science policy because of decisions I witnessed from afar,” Colón says. “I wanted the story to change, and I wanted future histories to be different.”
Colón grew up in both Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico, where she initially dreamed of a career in medicine. She earned her undergraduate degree in biology in 1997 from the University of Puerto Rico, an institution she says prepared her well for her subsequent studies at Brandeis University. There, she completed a Ph.D. in neuroscience in 2004.
“As a grad student, I saw that there were many areas where science wasn't yet a part of the decision-making process, and we needed to be there,” Colón says.
It was after beginning her AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship in 2006 that she really dug her heels into the world of policy. Assigned to the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., Colón had the opportunity to work on international science policy, specifically tackling K-12 STEM education and experiential learning models in Muslim-majority countries.
“I took Arabic lessons every day at 7 a.m.,” she recalls, to prepare for her travels to countries like Jordan, Oman, and the Philippines to observe more than 300 teachers trained through the program. “I wanted to be able to go to some of these countries and really go in with an open heart, meeting the people we were working with, building trust with them…not being someone from the U.S. who comes in and tells people what they need to do.”
During the Obama Administration, Colón rose to be Deputy Science and Technology Advisor to the U.S. Secretary of State, where she oversaw the launch of NODES (the Networks of Diasporas in Engineering and Science initiative). This partnership with AAAS' Center for Science Diplomacy and the National Academies of Science sought to empower U.S.-based science and engineering diaspora networks and link them to their countries of origin.
Since then, Colón continues her engagement with the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy, where she currently serves as a member of the selection committee of the AAAS David and Betty Hamburg Award for Science Diplomacy. The award recognizes an individual or small group using science as a common language to bring allies and adversaries together through collaborative research as a way to address global challenges like biodiversity loss, nuclear proliferation and sustainable development. This is one of the ways AAAS seeks to advance international cooperation in science as part of its mission.
Over the last 15 years, Colón has tackled policy challenges and advocated for new future histories at the federal and local levels. In 2020, she was named a Latino National Security & Foreign Policy Next Generation Leader and Yale-OpEd Project Public Voices on the Climate Crisis Fellow. Today, she sits on President Biden's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
One of the issues Colón is most passionate about and champions through her work is the global advancement of women in science. Historically, women have been underrepresented in STEM. Today, they make up less than 30% of the STEM workforce, and many women earn significantly less than their male counterparts.
“For me, policy has always been about having an influence on how history gets shaped for the betterment of the lives of our communities,” she says. During the Obama administration, she helped tell the stories of women in STEM, like Puerto Rican botanist and suffragist Ana Roqué de Duprey, whom history forgot.
Colón’s interests, accomplishments, and accolades all stem from her desire to create better tomorrows for the people of today. How can we shape future histories? It’s a goal that, for starters, requires humility, cooperation, and understanding.
“There are tremendously talented and brilliant people on the policymaking end that may not have scientific expertise,” Colón says. “And one of the things that happens is you start to realize science is not the only consideration in the decision-making process.”
Learning how to frame technical issues in a way that resonates and makes sense for the ultimate decision maker is crucial, she says, adding that approaching policy problems with only a scientific frame of mind can hinder progress.
“You need a lot of respect, openness to understanding others’ frameworks, and you have to be willing to learn,” Colón says. “You may know the science, but you probably don't know everything else that goes into the decision process.”
Recently returned from Glasgow, Colón’s focus at the Center for American Progress is on the new wave of climate commitments made at COP26.
“I love the fact that I can use science to directly make people's lives better,” she says. “Whether that's because the policy decision is going to give them cleaner air or help them afford an electric vehicle, whatever it is, the ultimate goal is that through science, people's lives will ultimately be better.”