Crystal Colón Ortiz, PhD, Class of 2022 ​

Interviewed and written by Rosa Chavarro

Crystal Colón Ortiz was raised in Puerto Rico, where her scientific career started through the RISE Program at the University of Puerto Rico at Cayey. After earning a Bachelor’s Degree in General Biology, she participated in the Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP) at Case Western Reserve University and worked in the laboratory of Dr. Johannes von Lintig studying the biochemical basis of vitamin A production.

Crystal’s thesis work in the Department of Pathology and Cell Biology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center at the lab of Dr. Carol Troy focused on understanding the inflammatory role of caspases in a retinal model of neurovascular injury.

During her graduate trajectory, Crystal was awarded the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, the Association for the American Advancement of Science (AAAS) Program for Excellence in Science, the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) Trainee Professional Development Award, and the NIH Blueprint Diversity Specialized Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Award (F99/K00).

To support the graduate journey of underrepresented minorities, Crystal co-founded the Graduate Initiative for Diversity (GID) at Columbia. Her career goal is to study the retinal-brain connection, and specifically how neuroinflammation is regulated in neurodegenerative diseases of the brain that cause retinal pathology.

Why did you choose Columbia for graduate school?

I knew that a PhD program would be a difficult journey, and I wanted to be in a place where students were happy and listened to. I also wanted a place that offered me unique research opportunities in my field of vision sciences. When I visited Columbia prior to my decision to attend, I noticed that students were happy. I also had the opportunity to meet Dr. Carol Mason, who introduced me to every lab doing vision sciences research at Columbia. I knew Columbia was the right place for me when I discovered the many faculty scientists working in my field.

What encouraged you to apply to Columbia?

Although I graduated summa cum laude from the University of Puerto Rico at Cayey, and I had extensive research experience through various student exchange programs at Tufts University, Michigan State University, Case Western Reserve University, and the University of Georgia, I never considered applying to a PhD program at an Ivy League institution. I initially had nine schools on my list, and Columbia was not one of them. Then I talked with my mentor at Case Western Reserve University about my list of schools, and he encouraged me to apply to Columbia for its vast program in vision sciences. That’s how I ended up at Columbia.

What led you to a career in science?

My passion for a career in scientific research began the summer before my first semester of college. The University of Puerto Rico at Cayey has a small science department with only four majors to choose from—Physics, Mathematics, Chemistry, or Biology. I chose Biology because I wanted to become a medical doctor one day—but the summer before my first semester in college, I attended the RISE Program, and this experience changed my career path. The RISE Program at the University of Puerto Rico at Cayey gave me the opportunity to take introductory science courses taught in English ahead of the start of the semester.

The RISE Program also introduced me to research skills in a lab. I remember one of the microscopy sessions that summer. I saw life under the microscope—and I loved it. For the first time, I discovered research and the possibility of a career as a research scientist one day. After the RISE Program, I never stopped working in a lab and studying science.

What prepared you most for a PhD program at Columbia?

My biology program at the University of Puerto Rico at Cayey was small and did not offer me all the advanced courses and lab experience I needed for graduate school. To further prepare for graduate school, I enrolled in summer research programs at the University of Georgia and Tufts University. I also pursued a fall semester at Michigan State University, where I took courses in neuroscience and conducted research in a lab as an undergraduate student. These experiences were key for my development, and convinced me that research was for me.

Before coming to Columbia, I did a postbaccalaureate program at Case Western Reserve University in Dr. Johannes von Lintig’s research lab that catapulted me into a PhD program. Also as part of Dr. Johannes von Lintig’s research lab, I was able to publish my first paper as co-author in my field. Additionally, I learned about life as a graduate student, being away from my family in Puerto Rico, and the importance of taking care of my mental health. These experiences helped me prepare for life as a graduate student at Columbia.

Can you share about your experience as a PhD student at Columbia?

What I appreciate most about Columbia is that it offers the freedom and flexibility to pursue your passion. For me, that was doing research in vision sciences. I also appreciate that I could make the program my own. Many experiences were open to me, such as teaching and mentoring undergraduate students. Teaching or mentoring students was not a requirement for my program, yet Columbia provided me with ample opportunities to explore and expand my skills in these areas.

Equally important, Columbia provided me with many opportunities to choose a lab through multiple lab rotations. I was excited to choose a lab in any department I wanted. In my case, vision sciences can be its own department or within the neuroscience department.

At Columbia, because of the many options available for me, I had access to many mentors, and my chosen lab did not have to be within a specific department. It was important to me not to be limited in my research pursuits. At Columbia, I could focus on research and excel at that.

What general advice would you give future students in the program, especially underrepresented minorities in the sciences?

First, I personally struggled a lot with the idea that I wasn’t supposed to be a PhD student at Columbia. I overworked and spent a lot of energy trying to prove to the Program Directors that they had not made a mistake by admitting me into the program. In retrospect, I was wrong. There is no point in wasting energy on thinking like this because it only hurts your self-esteem and confidence. I advise future students to own their awesomeness and to trust that the program did not make a mistake by admitting them. You made it this far—and there is a reason why you were chosen to be part of the program!

Second, there is a big difference between college and graduate school. One main difference is that in graduate school, you may not receive a lot of feedback from your professors or Principal Investigator. There is a point in your graduate studies where you will be completely independent. That is, you will not be taking courses, receiving grades, or hearing a lot from your PI. When you encounter this, you might feel doubt and wonder if you are doing something right or wrong.

Graduate school is about personal growth. There is a lot of failure and rejection in science. Sometimes papers are not accepted, grants are not reviewed, and experiments fail. I advise future students to think of failure or rejection as growth. Learning to grow in failure is my biggest advice to students. It is part of the journey to experience failure in science—so do not take it personally. You have to separate who you are as a person and your value from what you do. Take this as an opportunity to ask yourself what you can learn from it.

Lastly, you are going to experience a lot of grief in graduate school. For example, you are going to experience the loss of relationships or friendships. At times, people will not understand the time commitment to this work. You might also have your own expectations about what kind of research you want to pursue, and then change your mind because you found a lab that had a good environment and was a better fit for you. It is okay to feel bad because what you expected initially did not turn out to be what you got in the end.

What advice would you give future students in the program, especially underrepresented minorities in the sciences, about developing mentoring relationships?

I think finding a mentor is like dating. I would say to future students that they should think about the attributes of the environments where they have excelled the most in the past—and the people who have helped them the most. Environment matters.

Also, as you find mentors, do not be afraid of sharing your dreams and research goals with them. During lab rotations, ask a lot of questions and meet with as many people as possible, including current students and/or alumni. They can give you valuable information about the work, the culture of the lab, and potential mentors. In my case, I met students and alumni who were excelling in Dr. Carol Troy’s lab, and I knew that she would do the same to help me succeed.  

As you think about the future, what helped you the most to prepare for the next step in your career?

My mentors at Columbia! My Principal Investigator, Dr. Carol Troy, helped me prepare the most for my next step in my career. I like to say that she gave me wings to fly, as she never said ‘no’ to me. She supported ALL of my ideas. And since she knew that I was interested in a career in academia, she provided me with the skills I needed and with opportunities to reach my goal, such as polishing my skills and challenging me to learn more. She trusted that I could do the work and treated me like a colleague, not just a student. Her support gave me a lot of confidence and helped me believe in myself. I felt like a valued and respected member of her lab. I am eternally grateful to Dr. Carol Troy for believing in me.

What are you doing next after graduation?

I am moving to North Carolina right after graduation and joining Dr. Cagla Eroglu’s lab at Duke University as a postdoctoral researcher for the next four years. My goal is to have my own lab in the future.

I never thought that I would be the recipient of an NIH training grant that allows me to do my dream research project! This was possible because of my mentor, Dr. Carol Troy.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, my thesis project suffered, and I did not have the data I needed to apply for an NIH training grant. Despite challenges, Dr. Carol Troy helped me create a plan to conduct experiments and to gather the data I needed for the application. I got the grant award after the second round. If it had not been for Dr. Carol Troy’s investment in me, this opportunity at Duke would not have been possible.

What excites you most about your future in science?

There are so many things that excite me about the future! But I think that one thing that excites me the most is the opportunity to create my own research project. At Duke University, I will be conducting my own research study based on my own ideas on the retinal features of Parkinson’s disease that can be used as a biomarker. This is my dream research project. I will be doing this in a lab that supports this type of research, and that will further my skills in research and help me work towards my goal of becoming a Principal Investigator.

I am also excited about the future of academia. I firmly believe that the graduate school experience can be better for students. I think there is a better way in academia, and I want to contribute to academia as a researcher, a teacher, and a mentor.