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Carlos Colon: Understanding the roots of terrorism

Carlos Rafael Colon '15 of Boston was a sophomore majoring in psychology when he discovered a research focus that led him to a second major, an internship in the Washington, D.C. area, and a future career path.

Carlos first learned about the UMass Drone project when he took a political science class with Prof. Avery Plaw as an elective. Founded by Plaw, Prof. Brian Glyn Williams, and research analyst Matthew Fricker, UMass Drone tracks the casualties inflicted by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia and targeted killing by other states elsewhere in the world.

Carlos joined UMass Drone after receiving a research grant from the Honors Program.

"If I hadn't stopped by Prof. Plaw's office to show him something I found online that related to drones in Pakistan, he wouldn't have asked me if I'd like to help," he said. "I happened to be in the right place at the right time."

Extensive analysis of drone strikes

By analyzing media reports from Pakistani and global newspapers, the UMass Drone team had assembled a database of casualties, initially focusing on Pakistan. Carlos's first objective was to help update and expand the database; his second was to create a website for the project, to make the data available to the public.

"Updating the data involved helping the team with reviewing each strike in the database, increasing the number of sources on which we are drawing data, and providing an explicit reason in each case for the data source that we identify as the most credible," he said.

Internship at the International Center for Terrorism Studies

The UMass Drone project gave me a research focus and an idea of what I'd like to do going forward. It had a big impact on my studies.

"The UMass Drone project gave me a research focus and an idea of what I'd like to do going forward," Carlos said. 

He decided to declare a double major in political science and psychology. Working with the Career Development Center, he also applied to the Washington Center to serve as a research intern at the International Center for Terrorism Studies at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, VA.

"I conducted extensive research on Middle Eastern affairs and assisted with analytical writing, editing, and compiling research materials for the director," Carlos said, noting that the experience complemented his work with UMass Drone.

"The internship has increased my employability by introducing me to other opportunities. Through the International Center for Terrorism Studies, for example, I was introduced to The Jerusalem Review of Near East Affairs where I've written articles about Middle Eastern politics," he said.

"Every opportunity builds on an earlier experience. My experience with UMass Drone helped me gain my internship. I've also been given the opportunity to help Matthew Fricker and Prof. Plaw with their upcoming book." 

Plans for graduate school and a career in research

The more experience you gain, the more likely it is that you'll increase your chances out in the real world.

Carlos envisions a career at a research-based institution following graduate study that will integrate both his majors. He plans to apply to Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and Georgetown’s Security Studies Program.

"My main research focus is terrorism studies," he said. "I'm interested in researching radicalization and the ways people join radical organizations. And the psychological factors are arguably the most important aspect when trying to understand this subject."

Lesson learned: pursue your interests to increase your opportunities

Carlos is following a unique path, but his story provides a lesson he'd like to share with other students.

"If you find something that sounds interesting to you, whether or not it's related to your major, try to make something out of it. The more work you put in and the more experience you gain, the more likely it is that you'll increase your chances out in the real world."

More information

Honors Program

Career Development

Washington Center

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