Celebrating Women's History Month: Xiomara Calderon-Colon
Xiomara Calderon-Colon credits a summer internship with changing her life—setting her on the path to become a materials scientist and bringing her to the United States. She says APL’s high school mentoring program gave her a chance to make a difference for other young people. “I think giving people opportunities is very important because it exposes them to many different things,” says Calderon-Colon, who works in APL's Research and Exploratory Development Department (REDD). “Opportunities can change their career path…that’s what happened to me!” (The high school mentoring program, recently renamed ASPIRE [APL's Student Program to Inspire, Relate & Enrich], will celebrate its 25th anniversary in May.)
Calderon-Colon was an undergraduate student at the University of Puerto Rico studying industrial chemistry—in preparation for a career as a pharmacist—when a short-term internship in the United States gave her a chance to work with polymers. When she returned to Puerto Rico, her summer internship mentor suggested a way she could continue to work with polymers in her career because it was an area she had enjoyed, and directed her to schools where she could study materials science. After completing her graduate work at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Calderon-Colon began working at APL as a post doc and soon had the chance to work with biomaterials and other nanomaterials.
Today, her work in biomaterials is centered around a collagen-based material for eye-wound healing, a program called Eye Patch led by Morgan Trexler of REDD. She’s also collaborating with REDD principal investigator Julia Patrone on projects using nanomaterials as biosensors and in drug-delivery applications. With Trexler, she is also working on another project using nanomaterials to improve ballistic performance of Kevlar fibers.
Calderon-Colon is also leading her second Independent Research and Development project, which is focused on developing a multi-functional decontamination system. That system will have increased adsorptive properties (properties where gas or liquid gather on a surface) and self-decontamination capabilities.
An important part of her work is helping students become interested in science, just like she became interested after taking her 11th grade chemistry class. As an APL STEM Corps volunteer, she visits middle schools to talk about the importance of education and career opportunities in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).
“I tell them my story,” says Calderon-Colon. And she points out techniques that students can use later in their careers—reminding them that even if they don’t love a subject now, they may have to use it later on in life, so they should always try hard and show an interest. “I never saw the need to learn English when I was younger and stopped my learning process at a young age,” says Calderon-Colon. “I never imagined that down the road, I might need it!”
She also tells students that she believes that summer internships are good, even if the student ends up not actually enjoying the work. “They can learn what they don’t like and they can begin to build their network—which is critical to career success,” says Calderon-Colon.
By sharing her personal story, the science she worked on at different stages in her life, and even the struggles she had as a child from a divorced family where money was often tight, she hopes students will identify with her and learn that they can find a way to pursue their goals. “Mentoring is great because you can inspire students,” she says. “I would encourage anyone to become a mentor because it is very rewarding. It is something I never imagined I would do!”
Calderon-Colon feels at home now in the United States after eight years here, but she spends a lot of her time off visiting her mother and brother, who remain in Puerto Rico. In her free time, she enjoys cooking, music, and dancing.