In August’s blog post, we feature an interview with Dr. Julio Monti Belmonte, Assistant Professor of Physics, North Carolina State University.
When did you first become interested in mathematics and biology?
This happened in steps. While in high school I was interested in philosophy, economics, and physics, and I ended up deciding on physics as it seemed to me, at the time, more of a sure way to understand something about the world than the others. As an undergrad I got interested in computer models and simulations after taking “Intro to Computational Physics”, especially with simulations where spatial patterns arise. So I looked for research groups in my department and learned about the work of Prof. Rita de Almeida who was doing agent-based modelling of cells and tissues. I have never considered this research area before, but I really liked the way that I was putting my STEM skills (math + physics + programming) to investigate an “unusual” research area where there were (and still are) lots of discoveries waiting to be made.
Was the decision to do a Ph.D. an obvious and easy choice? How did you come to run your own group?
It was. I wanted more of that research experience I did as an undergrad and going for graduate study was the obvious choice. In Brazil, where I come from, the norm is to complete a master’s degree before a Ph.D. And that was exactly what I did. My work was in using self-propelled particle models (or boids) to study cell sorting under the direction of Prof. Gilberto Thomas (and also of Rita de Almeida and Leonardo Brunnet). After completing my master’s, I knew I wanted to pursue an academic career and applied for the Ph.D. program at Indiana University with the goal to work with James Glazier on modelling developmental processes. That was the only Ph.D. program that I applied for, which in hindsight was very risky, but I was accepted, and everything worked out fine. After that I knew I needed to do a postdoc on something different than my Ph.D., and it was pure luck that I ran into Maria Leptin at a conference in Cancun. She invited me to go to Germany and work with her and François Nédelec to create models of actin cytoskeleton. That was the perfect complement of my master’s and Ph.D. training, as it involved a very different process and computational technique, but at the same time was in many ways underlying all the cellular processes taking place during development. I guess this training placed me at a relatively good position for the academic job market and I was fortunate to join the “Modelling the Living Embryo” faculty cluster at NC State that has a mission very well-aligned with my research interests.
What are your main research questions and why are they interesting?
I have two main research questions that are related to each other. I want to understand how cells work together to drive developmental processes. This is the work I did for my master’s and Ph.D. and that I want to resume now that I have my own group. I also want to understand how cells produce and transmit the forces required to create those large-scale tissue changes. This is the continuation of the work on the actin cytoskeleton I started in my postdoc and where most of my research effort lies. My ultimate goal is to eventually link those two scales and be able to understand, model, and predict how physical processes happening at the subcellular level leads to large-sale tissue deformations.
What is a typical work day/week like?
After having some coffee at the cafeteria (i.e. my kitchen downstairs), I typically start by answering e-mails, then meeting one of my students (over Zoom nowadays) to talk about their research, then I answer more e-mails, work on finishing a manuscript, lunch break (i.e. go downstairs and eat with the family), talk with my collaborators from overseas, figure out when the next meeting is possible, answer more e-mails, decide whether I will work on that figure for the paper or if I will do some coding, postpone decision to help another student who cannot figure out why all their simulations are not running anymore in the computer cluster, realize I am now 5 min late for the last Zoom meeting of the day, have the last meeting with my graduate student, then I try to do something else, but I am working from home and the kids starting coming to my office (i.e. my bedroom) and I call it a day.
The content above will change over the year, of course, and may include an online conference, teaching a class/workshop, and serving on committees, but that is more or less what it feels like. I must agree with the previous blog post that more hours in a week would be very convenient.
Do you have any advice for someone considering a career in mathematical biology?
My first advice is to read the previous answers to this question in the other blog posts! They are really good.
In addition to that I do have a few others. If possible, try joining a research group while still an undergrad to get some experience doing research. At this point it does not matter much what the research topic is (you can also switch groups if you wish). For graduate studies, choose a university that offers a strong interdisciplinary training and a group that collaborates closely with experimentalists. Joining a multi-disciplinary group that gives you the opportunity to do some experiments would be even better. And for a postdoc, look for a different research topic than what you studied in your Ph.D. There will be a new learning curve, and you will lose some productivity in the short term, but it will be worth it. Lastly, if possible, switch universities and countries for each transition. Widen your network and research experience.
What do you like to do in your spare time outside of work?
I mostly spend my spare time with the family, taking the kids to the pool, out for a walk in the neighborhood and the woods, or to ride (and learn how to ride) their bikes. I also like to watch movies and TV series on the Internet.