I was born and raised in Puerto Rico. The mountainsides of central Puerto Rico (Barranquitas) were the breeding grounds for my curiosity and love of the natural world and biology. During highschool (Colegio San Ignacio) I benefited enormously from minority research programs that allowed me to explore my interests in science.
During college (Harvard University) I continued to explore my interest in science and my developing consciousness for social issues: I spent my summers doing ethnopharmacological research in the rainforests of Central America. This research culminated in a collaboration with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panamá in a research project aimed at preserving the sustainable use of medicinal plants among the indigenous groups of the watershed area of the Panamá Canal.
I graduated with a BA in Biology from Harvard University (MA). At the time I was not sure if I wanted to pursue research because I was interested in returning to Puerto Rico and I wasn't sure about the research opportunities in the archipelago. Furthermore, I did not have access to a good mentor, a fellow Puerto Rican who did, or was interested, in scientific research. It was during that time that I was lucky to meet Mariano Garcia-Blanco, a Puerto Rican professor at Duke University who soon became my mentor, and later, a good friend.
I worked in Mariano's lab for a year while I sorted out my career goals, and the experience was so positive soon afterwards we were submitting a paper on my work to Developmental Cell and I formally joined the Duke PhD program.
I obtained my PhD from the University Program in Genomics and Genetics (UPGG) at Duke University while working with Dr. Sally Kornbluth at the Pharmacology and Cancer Biology Department. In the Kornbluth lab I combined bioinformatics, molecular biology, biochemistry and cell biological approaches to answer questions critical for understanding the molecular mechanisms of apoptosis, a physiological process tightly linked to cancer. After four productive years in Sally's lab I obtained my PhD and decided to further my training in molecular genetics, physiology and neurobiology by joining the lab of Dr. Kang Shen at Stanford University. I am now a professor at Yale University (see Project information above).
Besides research, I am very interested in science and Puerto Rico. I am part of a non-profit scientific thinktank (Council for the Advancement of Puerto Rico Research and Innovation) interested in these issues. CienciaPR is one of the innitiatives we have spearheaded, with the idea of helping nucleate a community of scientists interested in science and Puerto Rico. Our hope is that through this community fellow scientists find a voice and become more participatory on the important social, economic and educational issues Puerto Rico will face in the 21st century.
Colón-Ramos lab: Laboratory of neural circuit development
We are interested in understanding the developmental events that direct precise neural connectivity. In particular, we are interested in how these events are coordinated in complex neuropil structures such as the brain. How are these developmental events simultaneously coordinated between pre- and postsynaptic partners to allow precise wiring? How do they give rise to highly organized neuropil structures such as the brain?
We use the nematode C. elegans to look at the development of circuits in vivo and with single cell resolution.
The human brain consists of 100 billion neurons and over 100 trillion synapses. The ability of a neuron to find its correct target in this complex environment is critical for the formation of the circuits that underlie human behavior. What are the molecular and cellular “organizing principles” that help create such a complex, yet precisely wired structure?
We have established a system in the C. elegans nerve ring (the nematode brain) to study this question. In C. elegans we can visualize synapse development in vivo with single cell resolution, and use genetic and cell biological tools to dissect the molecular and cellular components required for the development of the nematode brain. Using this system we discovered that glial cells are required for the assembly of behavioral circuits in the brain. To our knowledge this is the first evidence that glial cells can specify precise neural connectivity in vivo. We also discovered a novel function for the Netrin receptor UNC-40/DCC in directing synaptic targeting.
These findings prompt the following questions: How does the Netrin receptor direct synapse formation? How do glial cells orchestrate circuit assembly in the brain? What other molecular signals govern synaptic targeting in the nematode brain? Our lab will couple genetic, molecular and biochemical techniques to identify the organizing principles that direct precise circuit connectivity in the nematode brain.
* Colón-Ramos D.A., Shen K. (2008) Cellular conductors: glial cells as guideposts during neural circuit development. PLoS Biol. 6:e112
* Colón-Ramos, D.A., Margeta, M., Shen, K., 2007, Glia promote local synaptogenesis through UNC-6/Netrin signaling in C. elegans. Science, Oct 5; 318 (5847): 103-6.