Dr. Yadilette Rivera-Colón is a researcher and educator who found her calling working in research laboratories. She earned her doctorate in Molecular and Cellular Biology in 2013 from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she researched structural and biochemical properties of human lysosomal enzymes. Upon completion of her doctorate, she became an IRACDA Post-doctoral fellow at the PENN-Professional Opportunities for Research and Teaching, in the laboratory of Ronen Marmorstein, Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania, where she focused on biochemical studies of protein acetyltransferases. Most importantly, her career has been shaped by her passion for teaching. In her words, “I am a rebel teacher.” A native of Puerto Rico and a first-generation college graduate, Dr. Rivera-Colón has a strong personal drive to connect with Latinas and other underserved populations to share her love of science. On any given day, Dr. Rivera-Colón can be found in one of the labs at Bay Path helping students with their research projects, teaching a class in biochemistry, or visiting the Holyoke STEM Academy to open students there to the wonders of the scientific world. As many of her students would attest, her enthusiasm is infectious, and she is committed to her personal mission: create the next generation of women scientists.
“If you look at my resume, it looks like a linear path. I made all the right moves, and took the appropriate steps. Yet, in truth, that wasn’t really the case. Remember—a resume records your successes, but not your failures or challenges. In Puerto Rico, I went to a vocational high school. It did not prepare me for the science program at the University of Puerto Rico. My first year was very, very hard. I questioned myself: did I make the right decision? And now, I see some of my students in the same struggle. I’ve been there.
But, and I think this is very important, I had some good mentors and professors who believed in me, and I graduated from the University of Puerto Rico. Then, I decided to go for graduate school, and I entered the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. This was a big decision. It meant leaving my family and home. I would not only be speaking English constantly, but I would be thinking in English. During this time, one of my mentors asked me: ‘What do you want to do with your life?’ I didn’t hesitate in responding: ‘I want to be able to contribute and change the way science is taught now, that is, through a majority point of view. <We should remember that most universities were established for young men.> The materials and methods in scientific teaching are adjusted to the male perspective—I want to influence that direction.’ He told me if I wanted to have that kind of impact, then I had to have people value my opinion.
That kind of set the stage for me. In graduate school, I had to work harder than most other students because, first, I was a Latina, and, second, I was a woman. Another challenge was language. I believe it takes time for a person to be themselves in another language. And even then, native speakers already are looking at you through a language filter. This was a major struggle for me in graduate school. For example, I would be giving a presentation and people would approach me later and say, “You were so eloquent. I could understand what you said.’ I was not being judged on my science, rather on my ability to speak. Scientists are known for their objectivity, but sometimes that objectivity prevents them from realizing they may be committing microaggressions.
Today, when I speak, people really listen to what I’m saying.
And since I’ve come to Bay Path, I have bought a home in Holyoke. I didn’t even look anywhere else. As a resident, I attend town hall meetings, and I am involved in all aspects of education. When I am in a gathering and I can give very sound advice to the Latina community and other organizations because of who I am—a scientist and a faculty member at Bay Path—I feel I am making a difference. As a result of my achievements, I take my responsibility as a role model and mentor very seriously. It’s my way of giving back.
Often, I am asked what motivates me, and it comes down to two factors: I believe in working hard and always taking advantage of opportunities. That’s who I am.”