Daniel Colón Ramos on embracing the familiar while seeking the unknown

Daniel Colon Ramos
Daniel Colon Ramos (Photo by Robert Lisak)

This month, How Cell Biologists Work talked to Daniel Colón Ramos, who splits his time between chilly New Haven and sunny Puerto Rico as an Associate Professor of Neuroscience and Cell Biology at the Yale University School of Medicine and an Adjunct Professor at the Instituto de Neurobiología Jose del Castillo in San Juan. He is also a fellow at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole. The Colón Ramos lab studies the cell biology of synapses (connections between neurons), both during development and during learned behaviors. The lab fluorescently labels single neurons and images their activity within the context of a living organism, Caenorhabditis elegans being their model of choice, which enables them to make connections between synaptic activity and behavior. Using this system, the lab has recently discovered that a single neuron in C. elegans integrates two modes of plasticity (or adaptation) to allow individuals to both sense a temperature change and respond to that change based on a learned preference, all through a single cell (Hawk, et al. Neuron, 2018).

An image of a newly hatched C. elegans larvae with its nervous system labeled with GFP (pseudocolored blue and green). Because C. elegans is transparent, and because we have tools that allow us to express and image proteins in single cells of the nervous system, we can visualize synapses in single neurons of live animals, both during embryonic development and during behavior. (Credit: Mark Moyle and Leighton Duncan)

Colón-Ramos lab on the Annual Lab Retreat in San Juan, Puerto Rico (March, 2018). In 2018, after Hurricane María, we decided to conduct our annual lab retreat and workshops in San Juan, PR. From front to back and left to right: Daniel Colón-Ramos, Agustin Almoril-Porras, Zhao Xuan, Titas Sengupta, Sisi Yang, Sarah Hill, Joon Lee, Richard Ikegami, Ernesto Cabezas-Bou, Leighton Duncan and Mark Moyle. Not in the picture: Shavani Prashad, Mayra Blakey, Josh Hawk, SoRi Jang, Ian Gonzalez, Laura Manning, Milind Singh, Noelle Koonce, and Lin Shao.

Colón Ramos acknowledges that nature does not conform to categories defined by humans, and approaches his work with an open mind, making connections at a micro and macro level. “It comes at a cost” says Colón Ramos. “It takes longer to answer questions when you are trying new approaches and managing new collaborations.” Taking this slow and steady approach to science, he has received the NIH Pioneer award and the HHMI Faculty scholar award, among others. He was inspired to pursue science further and encourage minorities in science after a teaching experience in Puerto Rico revealed the ways in which he could connect his research and his Puerto Rican roots. He has since founded CienciaPR, a nonprofit organization to spread science in Puerto Rico, and has won the AAAS Early Career Award for public engagement. As a PI, his most rewarding and challenging task is to manage people and combine the diversity of input from everyone, both inside and outside of his lab. It is no surprise that his greatest piece of advice for emerging scientists and PIs is to reach out for help when necessary and seek input from others. You can find his iBiology lecture here.

You can find more from Colón Ramos at eNeuro, MBoC, JCB, and Wonder Collaborative.

Let’s start with your Name: Daniel Alfonso Colón Ramos (I know, a mouthful. In Puerto Rico we use both our paternal and maternal last names. In the U.S. I spell my last name as “Colón-Ramos,” with a hyphen, so that people do not get confused and incorrectly think that Colón is my middle name.)

Twitter: @dacolon

Location: New Haven, CT, and San Juan, PR

Position: Associate Professor of Neuroscience at Yale School of Medicine; Associate Professor of Cell Biology at Yale School of Medicine;

Profesor co-adjunto, Instituto de Neurobiología Jose del Castillo, San Juan, Puerto Rico

Marine Biological Laboratory Fellow

Current Mobile Device(s): An iPhone with a beat-up, bulky case that has (barely) survived four children.

Current Computer(s): As of a week ago and before a recent water spill, a Macbook

What kind of research do you do? My lab studies the cell biology of the synapse: how neurons establish synapses during development, how they maintain the synapses during growth, and how they modify the synapses during learning. My lab examines the cell biology of the synapse in intact animals by using the nematode C. elegans.  We link developmental biology, cell biology, genetics, physiology, calcium imaging, and behavior to examine our questions of interest.  We collaborate with many groups because it is fun to learn from them, because it is fun to work with friends, and because I think that to understand a biological problem, we need multiple approaches across different disciplines.

My opinion is based on the thought that nature does not care about our categories, fields, or disciplines, so in my lab we define interesting problems, and then frequently collaborate in the implementation of the different approaches we need to answer our questions of interest. It comes at a cost: It takes longer to answer questions when you are trying new approaches and managing new collaborations, but it is also very rewarding in that we are constantly learning new things, both about the biology, and about how different scientific disciplines conceptualize and address scientific problems.

What is one word that best describes how you work? I’ll do better than reducing it to a word, I’ll describe it with an onomatopoeic sound: “Hmm…”

What excites you most about your current work? Making connections, at all levels. I love seeing how neurons make connections to build circuits, how the animals interact with their environment to learn, and in turn modify the connections of their circuits, how students make new associations of concepts, and connections with their peers while seeking to understand how the circuits of the animals work, and how the lab, the department, and the broader scientific community make connections in research collaborations and in training future generations of scientists to generate new knowledge. I would like to understand the cellular and molecular underpinnings of complex emergent properties—how molecules and cells self-organize and cooperate to build a functional circuit, or how circuits cooperate to build a memory. Right now, we are working on several projects that seek to connect the developmental programs that build the circuits, with the plastic programs that allow the animal to modify the exact same circuits. That is a new challenge I am currently very excited about—understanding how the cell biology of a single synapse resolves the tension between being stereotyped during development, and plastic during learning.

Can you describe one experience from your life or training that set you on this path? There has not been a single experience that set me on this path, but reflecting back on my career, I do recognize the guiding hand of mentors, collaborators, colleagues, and friends in almost every significant transition that brought me to where I am today. I will share one. When I was finishing my undergraduate degree, I was not sure if I wanted to continue my training in the biomedical sciences. While I majored in Biology, and had experience doing research, I had many doubts about moving forward to a PhD program. Frankly, I just felt like I was not good enough to do research or to be a scientist. I could not “see” myself as a researcher, in part because of a lack of role models, in part because I did not do that well in the science classes (many of which I felt were targeted to pre-med students), and in part because, as a Puerto Rican, I felt a deep commitment to contributing to my community, and I could not see how I could do that as a scientist. At that critical point I was lucky to meet Mariano Garcia-Blanco, a professor at Duke University who served as a mentor and a role model.  Mariano hired me as a postbac and let me develop an independent research project in his lab looking at the nuclear architecture of the algae Chlamydomonas reinhardtii (the study I led resulted in a first-authorship paper in Developmental Cell, an amazing experience). That year I also traveled with Mariano to the University of Puerto Rico at Cayey to teach a research workshop on the cell biology of C. reinhardtii. Those experiences were transformative, as they allowed me to link my identities—as a researcher and as a Puerto Rican—in meaningful ways. During the year in Mariano’s lab I was able to grow in my role as a scientist, and to visualize how my knowledge contributed to both science and my community of origin. The experiences, in a sense, then gave me “permission” to pursue my calling in science.

What is one part of your current position or project that you find challenging?  Managing people. It is simultaneously the most challenging and one of the most rewarding aspects of being a PI. I remember when I started my faculty position, I had a lab announcement, and met individually with each person in the lab to share the announcement. I had four meetings, and one message, but in each meeting, with the same message, I got completely different reactions. Different people respond differently to the same message—an obvious fact I had not thought about or anticipated in my new leadership role as PI.

Understanding how to manage people—collaborations, reviewers, mentees, etc.—is an important part of what we do as scientists and mentors, but an aspect for which we get little training. What eventually helped me was to be part of a group of similarly ignorant, but well-intentioned junior faculty, to help each other through this important learning process.  The “junior faculty” group we started 10 years ago still meets regularly, as we continue to learn in our growing scientific leadership roles. We hired an organizational psychologist to help moderate the sessions, and we still meet every other week to discuss our growing responsibilities in academia, and how to do better in our roles as scientists and mentors.

Do you have any specific advice about establishing or running a lab for new or aspiring faculty?  Starting an independent group can feel lonely, and it is easy to hide when things are not going well, yet, when things are not going well, we should be doing the opposite—looking for help. A solution to that is to find a group of junior PIs/friends to share the experience. Get a group together and create a routine of sharing lunch every other week or so, of reading each other’s grants, of discussing scientific ideas as well as mentoring tips. A number of companies and scientific organizations run effective workshops regarding lab management—I recommend approaching the university administration with a proposal to bring one of those groups to campus to teach a workshop, or even using discretionary funds, if allowed, to bring them to campus.  I took those courses and they were a good investment of my time and money. Investing in our management skills is ultimately an investment in the people in the lab, and in the science. Complement that investment with a prioritization of training and mentoring of the people in the lab. Every minute spent mentoring them, teaching them, troubleshooting with them, discussing science and career aspirations, etc., will strengthen the lab and advance science.

What (if any) are your preferred methods for training your students to become independent scientists? In my lab we seek to create a network of mutual mentoring and support. Being mentors or mentees, like being teachers or students, is relational, and the roles change depending on the context. As scientists in the pursuit of knowledge, we need the mental agility to be both mentors and mentees. To learn this, all my mentees also serve as mentors to new lab members, regardless of hierarchy in training. We also have sessions to discuss how we can all be better teachers and students to each other. In that way, we move beyond the normative hierarchical structures in scientific training and instead create a web of mutual accountability and support in which responsibility and leadership is encouraged. For people interested in our mentoring philosophy, I recommend this article.

What’s your best time-saving shortcut/lifehack? I am not a good person to give time management advice—I am not that efficient with time. But I also think the biggest waste of time is not so much accounting for every minute in the day, but rather not being purposeful deciding what is important. So my biggest “time-saving” tip is to first decide, thoughtfully, what is important (and that takes time!), then based on what is important, decide where one needs to be, and equally important, where one does not need to be. Finally, to be present in that decision.

In other words, “Be where you are, and know where you need to be.” “Know where you need to be”: Spend some time aligning your activities with your goals, so that you do not find yourself somewhere where you do not need to or want to be.  Once you are purposeful about that part, then be mentally present in the space you chose to occupy. For example, I have four kids and a 14-person lab. If I spent all the time with the kids worried I am not in the lab, and all the time in the lab worried I am not with the kids, it does not matter how good I am at multitasking or accounting for every minute in the day, I would be wasting my time at both places.

What’s your favorite to-do list manager (digital or analog)? Things3

What apps/software/language/tools can’t you live without? “Box” for sharing data, “Slack” for communicating with the lab, “Twitter” for sharing ideas and thoughts

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without? And how do you use it? A water bottle and a coffee mug, both with happy associations.

When/where do you find the most creative inspiration for your research? Either by talking to other colleagues, or by traveling and breaking away from my daily work routine. Twice a year I try to combine them. In March I visit the Instituto de Neurobiología Jose del Castillo, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. In the summer I visit the Marine Biological Laboratories at Woods Hole, MA. In both places I break away from my work routine. Breaking away from routine decreases my efficiency on getting things done from my “to do” list, but also creates new mental spaces where I learn new important things that I failed to prioritize during the rest of the year, reframe problems, and discuss science with colleagues outside of my field to challenge assumptions and come up with new ways of thinking about the questions in the lab.

What is one thing you never fail to do (in or outside of lab), no matter how busy you are? Procrastinate.

I also try to, even when I am very busy, make time for people in the lab. No matter how busy I am, if somebody in lab needs to talk to me, we will touch base and find time, at that moment, or a little later, depending on the urgency. I have the same “policy” for family and friends.

Who is one of your scientific heroes, and what is one quality you admire in that person? This is a hard question. I admire so many of my colleagues.  I am inspired by many of them, and when I start writing about them, I sound obsequious. But here it goes.  One that comes to mind at this moment, because I have been working closely with him in some science policy projects, is Ron Vale. He is a terrific scientist who has contributed so much to our understanding of many fundamental cell biological principles in elegant and inspiring studies (most notably, but not exclusively, to our understanding of motor proteins). The beautiful science is enough to merit admiration, but on top of that he has done so much for the scientific community and society at large: from establishing open source systems like MicroManager, to creating iBiology to democratize access to science and knowledge, to influencing science in India through frequent visits and workshops, to leading important discussions about the role of preprints in publishing (and founding ASAPBio), etc., etc., etc.

He has led a consequential life of being an impactful scientist in almost every space he occupies. When I grow up, I want to be like him.

What do you like to read, learn, or think about outside of lab? I like to read about history and philosophy of science. They work a different part of my brain, a part that is not occupied by the experiments or papers. Some of my favorite books include the Eighth Day of Creation by Horace Judson, The Logic of Life by Francois Jacob and Recuerdos de mi vida by Santiago Ramón y Cajal. I am now reading A Feeling for the Organism (Barbara McClintock’s biography by Evelyn Keller). I find it inspiring to look back in history and learn how knowledge was generated in the context of the biases at the time, in the context of our blindspots and limitations, but also in the context of the potential of the human mind. It helps me reflect regarding biases we might be facing right now, to which we are currently blind, but which are key to figure out in order to push science and society forward.

Are there any causes or initiatives in or outside of science that you are particularly passionate about? I am passionate about “democratizing” access to science—about explaining what science is, and its value, to the general public, particularly to communities that have been traditionally underserved by science.  I am passionate, based on my own background, about increasing scientific literacy and about using science as a tool to teach critical thinking. Besides my research program, I am the founder of CienciaPR.org, an organization tasked with promoting science in Puerto Rico. My role in the organization has changed with time, and I am now the president of the Board of Directors. The organization is an important outlet for my passion to share the joy of science and to use my position as a scientist to achieve meaningful social transformation, an aspiration that I have had, as I shared earlier, since before I chose to become a scientist.

What’s your sleep routine like? I have four kids, so not much of a sleep routine these days.

What’s the best advice you’ve received or some advice you’d like to share with trainees?  Science is about the unknown. The unknown makes us feel stupid. It is okay to feel stupid and inadequate in science, as that is the first and necessary step toward learning. What is not okay, in my opinion, is to fear and hide our ignorance and to take too much pride on the little we know.

The best scientists, in my opinion, are not the ones who know a lot of facts, but the ones who are good at recognizing their ignorance and are eager to do something about it. Many of the “facts” that we know today are wrong, and all of them are incomplete, so learning facts for scientists is most useful if it leads to questioning and examination that pushes knowledge forward. In that process, we will feel stupid, and experiments will not work the way we envisioned—and that is good! If they worked the way we envisioned all the time, we would not need to do science. Every experiment that does not work is a new learning opportunity.

At the end, the journey of science for me is as much a discovery about the subject I am researching, as it is a discovery about myself, my biases, and my ignorance….and that is the most unsettling, but wonderful aspect of doing science.

Who else would you like to see answer these questions? Megan King and Maya Schuldiner



About the Author:

Kira Heikes is a graduate student in Bob Goldstein's laboratory at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is currently studying embryonic development in tardigrades. Twitter: @KiraTheExplora Email: kiraheikes@gmail.com.
Vaishnavi Siripurapu is an undergraduate student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She is majoring in Biology and Women's Studies. Twitter: @VaishSiri Email: vaish16@ad.unc.edu