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Making Connections, Contributing Research

French House Focus: Bruno Beltran

One of our constant goals here at the Ogden Honors College is to provide our students with an environment—whether it be a classroom, a residence hall, or an off-campus excursion—that encourages interdisciplinary exploration and the sharing of ideas. From the moment he arrived on campus back in 2011, recent Ogden graduate Bruno Beltran embraced this interdisciplinary focus, and ran with it—to stellar results. During his time at LSU, Beltran received multiple grants from the National Science Foundation, including a 2015 NSF Graduate Research Fellowship; was awarded with a 2013 Goldwater Scholarship; conducted graduate-level research at Yale; and published numerous articles in prestigious scholarly journals. We sat down with Bruno recently to figure out exactly how he accomplished all of this in four short years.

I know a little bit about what you’ve accomplished as an undergraduate, but before we get in to that—tell me about your background, where you’re from, and how you ended up at LSU.

Well, I ended up at LSU because I didn’t have any money to pay for a college that wasn’t in-state. My family’s from South America, and my dad came here to become a doctor. We moved around a lot, but ended up in Lake Charles, Louisiana when I was in high school, and then I just stayed in good old Louisiana. I was one of those kids who went from not being too happy about ending up at LSU—I had applied to other places, and had big plans—to realizing, a posteriori, that it was a good decision.

I was pre-med, at first. I wanted to be a doctor, like my dad, but then I received the Global Leaders Award scholarship from the LSU Alumni Association [this scholarship includes the Chancellor's Future Leaders in Research award]. It’s designed specifically to give you money to do research with a professor. I was also a math major at the time—I still am—and so I asked people in the Math Department if anybody would be interested in working with me, and Dr. Frank Neubrander said “Yeah, sure, I have a project, come work for me.” So I started working for him, I really liked doing the research, and one thing led to another. 

Yes, I’ll say. What kind of research projects have you been involved in over the past four years?

With Frank, we were investigating different ways to calculate something called the matrix exponential, which is kind of obscure but also something that comes up over and over again in engineering problems. So we were investigating different ways to do this efficiently and more accurately. We did a lot of coding and running different tests, but the mathematics behind it was, you know, fairly pretty. I was attracted to this, and to the fact that we were doing something that nobody else in the world had ever done before. I thought, Wow—I can contribute to advancing this field, even as a freshman in college. That research was what I ended up writing my Honors Thesis on as a senior. 

That summer, I ended up going to Arizona State to do a Research Experience [an NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates], where I worked on modeling the spread of tropical diseases in population, and modeling aneurysm formation in the brain. We would build models of brains in the computer and simulate blood flowing through it, with different geometries to perturb the vasculature, and to see how that changes the mechanics, to try to find out what kinds of things put you at risk for aneurysm formation. That was also really cool, and since then I’ve moved more into that direction, where I’m using mathematics to model biological systems.

So you majored in math, or double-majored in math and biology?

No, I was just a math major. In fact, I was the kind of math major that you’re not supposed to be if you’re doing applied math. I took all the very pure sort of theoretical math classes, but my work is all in the applying of this. I think it helps to have a theory background.

When I came back from Arizona, Dr. Neubrander and I kept working together and began working on inverse LaPlace transforms. At that same time I sort of retroactively joined the LA-STEM Scholars program. In my first year at LSU I had met tons of people in that program, and they were all really cool, and they were like, Why aren’t you in LA-STEM? So I applied, and it was really, really great. This program brings in students from diverse backgrounds, with diverse interests, who are also interested in doing research. It was nice to be in the program because it gave us enough money to not eat ramen, so there’s that, but it’s also a great community of people who are really interested in research and in getting the work done. We have fun talking about science and complaining about our research not working. I made some of my best friends in the program, and now they’re going off to some of the greatest places in the world.

Unfortunately LA-STEM’s official NSF seed grant ran out last December. I’m really sad it’s gone, and I wish LSU had picked up the funding. I know most of the research opportunities I had, I wouldn’t have gotten without this program there to support me, and to show me where to go.

What kind of opportunities did you find through LA-STEM, and through the Honors College?

This is the thing about LSU, and about the Honors College. You meet all these people who seem to have different interests than you. You know, “Oh, you’re in math? Well, I’m in biology.” But we’re all nerds. And not nerds in the bad sense of 1990s sitcoms, but nerds in the sense of we’re really interested in cool new ideas. In the Honors classes, and in the Honors dorms your freshman year, there’s a sort of family that forms, a community of people who may or may not be interested in the same sort of things you are, but who are all a bunch of great, happy nerds who love to talk about interesting reading, interesting politics, interesting science—anything that is intellectually stimulating and lets you explore new ideas.  A lot of the things I never would have heard of, if I had just sat in the Math Department, came from the Honors College and from LA-STEM.

So for example, just through interacting with people and talking about the kinds of research I was interested in, I also started working with Professor Nandakumar in the Chemical Engineering Department. We were building these little microfluidic devices that can separate blood. Which actually didn’t work, but I made great friends with him, and through that, and through Dr. Warner, the Director of LA-STEM, I was able to participate in a Howard Hughes Medical Institute EXROP [Exceptional Research Opportunities Program]. Dr. Warner recommended me for it. It’s this program for people who want to do research in biology, and I never would have thought, hey, I should apply to this. But thanks to this community of people, I ended up in the EXROP, at Yale, in the Jacobs-Wagner Lab. That summer was really fun. I did work on how bacteria copy their DNA; I was able to model the molecular mechanism that allows the copied DNA to go from being one big clump into two separate copies. We published a paper on that in eLife. I also worked with a postdoc on a project where we filmed hundreds of thousands of cells growing and dividing, and did image analysis on the various cell sizes. What we were able to infer, using computer algorithms, was how the cells control their size over generations. I went back the next summer and kept doing work on that project, and eventually we got a Cell paper out of that. I also wrote a proposal based on that, and I got an NSF GRFP this year. So I’m going to graduate school at Stanford in the fall, for a PhD in Systems Biology.

What advice would you give to a student who is considering attending Ogden Honors?

A lot of people considering coming to the Honors College have “other options.” There is a perception in the high school sphere that LSU is not as prestigious, that we’re ranked lower in whatever US News survey. But these students are not aware of what kind of opportunities there are LSU. My friends and I are all really good examples of the fact that, if you come here, and you want to do well, opportunities abound. LSU is a big research institution that offers a lot of things smaller colleges don’t, especially opportunities to work with world-class faculty who are actually interested in doing research with undergraduates. So my biggest piece of advice is, don’t rule out LSU, and once you get to the Honors College, be open minded about what other people are doing, and about things you haven’t heard of before. You’re going to meet a lot of people who are doing crazy things in all kinds of fields, all the way from creative writing to astrophysics, So you may come in a biology major who wants to be a doctor. But don’t rule out any major just because you think your life goal isn’t best served by it. It’s really important to find what you think is interesting, do what you love, and do your best in what you love.