May 11 2016

Kathy Colon's Future Is High Tech Health

In the days leading up to Commencement, the Mailman School website is featuring first-person accounts from nine members of the graduating class as they reflect on their singular paths into public health, some of the surprising lessons they took away from their experience at the Mailman School, and their aspirations for the years ahead.

Among others, you’ll meet a former high school teacher who excelled in the lab while working to overcome the “imposter syndrome”; a Texas native intent on improving the odds for young women’s access to reproductive health in her home state; an aspiring physician who hit on the winning formula for compassionate care; and a scholarship-winning MHA grad set on making his mark at the Mayo Clinic.

Soon after completing her Executive MPH last fall, Kathy Colon was recruited to join IBM Watson Health, where she helps academic medical centers use the Jeopardy-winning technology to improve cancer outcomes for their patients. For Colon, the future of health is in technology.


I first got into the world of healthcare technology when I was recruited to work at Stryker to do sales and marketing for their medical devices. From there, I went to Philips Healthcare, where I worked on health informatics and IT—patient monitoring and telemetry. In 2012, I got the opportunity to pursue an Executive MBA with Brown University and IE Business School in Madrid. I thought the experience was going to transition me out of healthcare, but in fact, the opposite happened.

I was working on global projects with Glaxo Smith Klein and developing a healthcare marketing campaign for a medical device company and I fell in love with the possibilities of healthcare. I discovered that helping people and addressing pressing health challenges are my life’s purpose. But as I participated in high-level C suite meetings and pitches, I became aware that I didn’t have formal training in the area. The healthcare system is incredibly complex—especially after the introduction of the Affordable Care Act. I needed to become a subject matter expert. 

Around this time, I was selected to join the nonprofit Inter-American Health Alliance as vice president of their board of directors. IAHA offers medical and technological assistance to indigenous areas in Guatemala. I was excited to help to neglected populations, but we needed resources—and an effective strategy—to fulfill our goal to improve maternal child health, nutrition and health education. To get the training I needed for the organization and myself, I applied to the Mailman School.  

When I first enrolled, I was balancing being a single mother, a student, and a working professional. During my second year here, I was laid off from my job at Philips when the company went through a restructuring. It was a difficult time, but I later realized the experience was a gift. I finally had the opportunity to try new things. I got the chance to be a teacher assistant. I added classes in nutrition and obesity. I interned on a health committee for the City. I took the Global Healthcare class with Chelsea Clinton, which was incredible. I traveled with classmates to Cuba to study their health system. I created a start up that helps people living with chronic diseases. 

It was a time of intensive learning and introspection. Professor Tom Ference in my Strategic Management class encouraged me to write a case study based on my life. I interviewed 10 people: family, managers, close friends. This was a challenging assignment, but I learned and grew so much. The feedback my classmates and professor gave opened my eyes to many opportunities. It game me a life strategy.

By the time I finished with classes, I had multiple job offers. I decided to go with the one I felt would make the biggest difference. IBM Watson Health recruited me to work in oncology. I lost my grandmother to cancer; and my best friend has cancer.  The decision to join the Watson Health team was easy.

After the publicity around Watson winning on Jeopardy, large health systems came to IBM and asked for help with solving some of the largest healthcare challenges. Watson is a cognitive system that reasons and learns. It is continually growing and evolving. Physicians are using it to match cancer patients with clinical trials. I see it as a partnership between humanity and technology with the goal of transforming health.