Alumni Spotlight: Christina Colon (’78)

January 10th, 2022
Category: Alumni News, News

Christina Colon, PMFS class of 1978

As a student at PMFS, Dr. Christina Colon (PMFS ‘78) said she wanted to be an “animal scientist”. She grew up to be a tenured professor of Biology at Kingsborough Community College in New York, and one of the first researchers to study the Malay civet (a tropical mammal that looks a bit like a fox-raccoon-zebra-cat) in the wild. Christina has done fieldwork all over the world, from the Caribbean to Singapore. Her latest projects are near her college campus in Brooklyn, where she and her students study horseshoe crabs and urban coyotes. 

Christina’s career started in earnest after college graduation when she decided that Alan Rabinowitz, a famous zoologist, was going to be her mentor. “I didn’t really stalk him, but…” Christina grinned. With her characteristic persistence and moxie, Christina went to talks Alan gave, did field work at the jaguar preserve he created in Belize, and got a job (after three tries!) at the Bronx Zoo where he worked. When Alan saw that she was working at the zoo, he said, “You just don’t quit, do you?” And that’s the story of how Christina found her mentor and future doctoral advisor. Incidentally, Christina’s advice for PMFS students is, “Don’t quit. If people say you can’t, prove them wrong.”

A Malay Civet

Since then, Christina has had a fascinating career. She “wrestled alligators, owls, and pythons” in the education department of the Bronx Zoo. She earned a Fulbright fellowship to study civets in Borneo, “discover[ing] that they have the dietary breadth of walking garbage cans,” happily eating everything from plastic bags to venomous centipedes and scorpions. Christina produced and directed two documentary films, plus K-12 curricula on botany at The New York Botanical Garden, where she learned to appreciate trees as well as the animals living in the trees. She has also developed curricula for the American Museum of Natural History, published over a dozen research papers and book chapters, and authored numerous Frommer’s Travel Guides (she remembers an especially packed writing trip to Hawaii when she spent 12 days doing everything from jumping off a waterfall to climbing a volcano). More recently Christina has taught at Columbia University, led field courses to Belize and the Caribbean, worked at a bear and orangutan rehabilitation center, and followed her own research interests across 12 time zones.

Christina’s lifelong love of the natural world started with her mother, who used to take her to the Philadelphia Zoo with a bag of treats for the animals (who knew wolves liked hard boiled eggs?). PMFS alumni may remember Christina’s mother, Norma Colon, from one of her many roles at PMFS in the 70’s: bus driver, lunch helper, office administrator, assistant teacher, art teacher, and librarian. Christina said, “She recently passed away and we had a lovely memorial in the [Plymouth Friends] Meetinghouse where I spent many a quiet hour as a child, so it was very apt.” 

Norma Colon, wearing a Strawberry Festival t-shirt that she designed and screen printed

Academics didn’t come easily to Christina at first, but special teachers at PMFS like Carol Corson, Diane Gunnett, Wilma Culp, and Willard Terry saw her potential. Christina remembered what it was like living next door to Willard and Holly Terry in Germantown, saying, “They gave us a pet rat and we named it Willard.” She also has good memories of the Mexican Exchange, which she calls, “the ultimate cure for xenophobia.” Now that Christina is an educator herself, she takes extra care to help students who are struggling in their own academic journey. 

One last word of advice for future “animal scientists”: “You don’t have to be the best at anything important, you just need to be good at something that nobody else is good at.” In Christina’s case, that special skill is identifying animal poop by smell. Years of cleaning cages at the Bronx Zoo finally paid off when she was in the jungles of Borneo. Her remarkable ability to sniff out the scent of rare species earned her the full respect of the field center staff and scientists, who dubbed her ‘Civetina of the Jungle’. “It’s not a very marketable skill” she laughed, “but I published two dissertation chapters on my civet scat analysis, which helped get me a PhD!”