BioE’s Carlos Renteria: Passionate About Education, Curing Alzheimer’s, and Outreach— Particularly Exposing Hispanics to STEM

October 27, 2017

The more you learn, the more you can do. – Carlos Renteria


BioEngineering PhD student Carlos Renteria

This was the attitude Carlos Renteria’s dad instilled into him growing up. And it appears to have worked. Currently a PhD student in Bioengineering (BioE) and conducting research in Professor Stephen Boppart’s Biophotonics Imaging Lab, Renteria dreams of becoming a university professor to both teach and do research. And while he’s worked hard to get to where he is today—studying for a Ph.D. at a top engineering school— Renteria says he owes a lot of it to his dad.

“My dad was a very strong influence in terms of instilling education values in me. He really emphasized doing well in school and getting involved. The more you learn, the more you can do,” he emphasizes.

Born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, Renteria was a first-generation 4-year college graduate. His dad had gotten a community college degree, but wasn’t able to get a Bachelor’s in Architecture like he’d hoped. “I was the first to get a bachelor’s degree,” Renteria explains.

While he thought science was cool growing up, Renteria had actually hoped to fulfill his dad’s dream: “I wouldn't say it [science] was something I was super invested in as a little kid. I actually wanted to be an architect growing up.”

It wasn't until his sophomore year of high school, during a biology class, that the light bulb went off. “I learned to love biology,” he reports. So during his junior and senior year, he was part of the IB (International Baccalaureate) program. Similar to AP courses, it also includes creativity, action, and service portions that encourage involvement and leadership; plus students who score high enough on specific courses can receive college credit for those.


Above and below: Carlos Renteria at work in Professor Stephen Boppart's lab.

Other role models who impacted him significantly, in addition to his dad, were his teachers; he had really great biology and math teachers who encouraged him towards STEM. “I feel like they really had a passion for what they were teaching, and that kind of made me realize some of my strengths as well. I realized that I really enjoyed mathematics, and I felt like it was important for me to join a field that was pretty math intensive. So I kind of discovered biomedical engineering.”

Renteria reports that he had been most interested in imaging when he found out about biomedical engineering, and after learning about all the sub disciplines, he settled on bioimaging. “I thought that imaging was a very cool aspect of it that incorporated my desire to apply engineering principals and fundamentals via imaging to study and understand certain biological phenomena.”

And one of the biological phenomena he’s interested in? Alzheimer's.

His grandfather had it when Renteria was growing up, and he’d like to find a cure for it. So one of his research interests is neurodegenerative diseases, and he admits that he hopes to find a cure for some: “Finding ways to alleviate those symptoms and potentially work your way to a cure, is what I would ideally like to do. There are a lot of neurodegenerative diseases, and there's a lot of neurodegeneration that occurs as people get older. Studying things like that can be very beneficial for learning what we can do about them.”


Carlos Renteria in front of Beckman Institute.

While he’s never taken any coursework about the brain, he has done a lot of independent research on it. And while he does plan to take a course in neuroscience in the future, he also hopes to use engineering to help him learn more about the disease. “I felt like establishing the engineering fundamentals is very important, so that you develop the technologies and technique to study the specific thing you may be looking at. I feel like that’s a good foundation to have in order to study specific things.” Once he learns more about those, he hopes to have “a better appreciation for the field.”

So it was his dream of curing Alzheimer’s that has primarily set his trajectory over the last several years. Deciding that the MRI could help solve Alzheimer’s, as an undergrad in Arizona, he worked in the Prognostic Bioengineering Lab, which was involved in imaging research. There he developed an algorithm to co-register immunohistochemically-stained images with anatomical MR images. While the research at the lab was cancer focused, he felt the image processing fundamentals and skill sets would apply to other imaging techniques.

And they have. The image processing learning he gained from his initial undergraduate research opportunity gave him a solid fundamental understanding of a lot of the underlying math. Plus, it led him to participate in Illinois’ 10-week Bioimaging REU. During the REU, he not only got to focus solely on research for the whole ten weeks, but it also gave him insight into what graduate school would be like. While he had done research at Arizona State, he had primarily been focused on doing course work with a little bit of research. The REU was his first glimpse into what it would be like to mostly focus of research, which, he says, “was a lot different than what I had at first anticipated it would be.” He calls it “still busy, but…a different kind of busy.” Even now, though he’s taking course work in graduate school, he reports that he’s mostly reading papers or analyzing data.

Plus, the Bioimaging REU not only further cemented Renteria's love of imaging; it also set his course for the next six or so years of his life: seeking a PhD in Bioengineering at Illinois while conducting research in Stephen Boppart’s lab.


Carlos Renteria presents his research at the 2015 Illinois Summer Research Symposium as a Bioimaging REU participant.

While he's still doing his independent Alzheimer's research (readings he's done whenever he gets the chance), he says it's changed since coming to Illinois. Before, he had done a generic overview of it and the behavioral outcomes of the disease. This past year, however, he actually started focusing on what was actually going on with the disease. He wrote a paper on Alzheimer’s for a class last semester, and after reading a lot, “discovered some underlying molecular issues and proteins associated with the disease, and how the neurodegeneration starts. It wasn't until then that I had a better idea for what was going on.”

"That class project helped me understand a lot of the mechanisms behind the disease, which I believe will be helpful as I pursue my scientific career," he adds.

Has Renteria pretty much determined that he will research Alzheimer’s for his dissertation?

“No. Yes and no,” he prevaricates. He’s also become intrigued by the idea of studying the retina and photoreceptors, and may combine them with his earlier passion. Seeking the best of both worlds, he says, “There are some things you can study in the retina that are also related to Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases.”

Renteria believes that the imaging research that he's currently conducting in Boppart's lab will help elucidate information about the brain, and the retina, and he hopes to use them as techniques to study the mechanisms of Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases as he progresses through his career.

Along with research, Renteria also wants to teach. He served as a TA last year for the first time, and learned a lot from that experience. “I realized how difficult it is, but it is also very rewarding. And after that, I realized I did want to teach a little more, because I think education is one of the most valuable things that we can have. That was a value that I got from my dad.”

He would specifically like to teach people about signal imaging and processing. “I really think that having a good educator is very valuable,” he admits. “I feel like being able to get my skill set in teaching better, I could potentially make an impact on someone’s life.”

When Renteria was in high school, did he ever think he would be where he is today?

“No, I didn't,” he admits. “I didn't want to be a professor in high school. I didn't want to teach. I didn't want to do research. I just eventually got here.” Over the past several years, he’s gradually sharpened his focus; at one point he'd considered doing clinical research with an industrial focus rather than an institutional focus, and at another was thinking about making medical devices. “So I was all over the place where my career interests were, and I eventually found myself here. And I like where I am.”


Carlos Renteria (center) works with BioEngineering GAMES camp participants during one of the sessions he taught.

“I am really happy that I ended here,” Renteria adds. “I owe a lot to everyone who has taught me and educated me. I am very grateful and thankful.”

Along with curing Alzheimer’s and researching the Retina, another passion of Renteria’s is outreach. For instance, this past summer, he did the BioE GAMES camp, BioE’s Exploring Your Options in Engineering camp, and another. He says he got involved in outreach as a TA last year:

“I decided that this sounds really fun,” he admits, “and this is something I was to do.” So he got involved in hopes of giving back to the community.

“I feel like it’s important as an academic to give back in whatever way you can. Education is something I really value,” he acknowledges “I would like to not just teach and do research, but being able to reach out to groups of people or students and get them interested in science and engineering is a key core of what I want to do in the future.”


During a BioE GAMES 2017 biomeasurement activity, Renteria demonstrates how to student how to attach a biosensor to a teammate.

Coming from a Hispanic background, he also hopes to impact the number of Hispanics in STEM fields. He reports that the percentage of Hispanics enrolled in college is smaller than other demographics, and the higher one goes in education, the larger the discrepancies.

“Being able to make those discrepancies smaller is near and dear to my heart.” So he hopes that outreach activities that target those specific demographics, such as Hispanics, might help to make those discrepancies smaller. “That way there's a lot more diversity in the STEM fields,” he concludes. “Doing research and teaching is cool and great, but at the end day, you want others to get interested after you're gone. Outreach is getting people interested.”


Story by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative.

For more related stories, see: BioE, GAMES, GAMES: BioE, Grad, REU, REU: Bioimaging, Student Spotlight, Underserved Students/Minorities in STEM, 2017

For additional I-STEM articles about the activites Carlos has participated in previously, see:

Above: Renteria by some of the imaging paraphernalia in the lab.

Below: Renteria prepares to demonstrate how to put sensors on a labmate to the high schoolers participating in the Bio-E GAMES camp.




Nobel Project’s End-of-Year Zoom Bash Recaps Learning

February 1, 2022
The STEM Illinois Nobel Project held a special, end-of-the-year Zoom event celebrating its participating students’ achievements.
Full Story

It’s not magic, it’s physics

January 26, 2022
In Franklin STEAM Academy, Musical Magnetism program makes STEM fun, approachable.
Full Story

Program prepares STEM educators to teach all students

November 30, 2021
This summer, a group of educators gathered to learn about engaging STEM activities they can do with their students.
Full Story

Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program

November 11, 2021
Undergrads get a taste of research through I-MRSEC’s REU program.
Full Story

Goldstein’s Renaissance Engineering Summer Camp

November 1, 2021
Goldstein’s Renaissance Engineering Summer Camp Incorporates Art, Design, Mechatronics, and Mentoring
Full Story

TechTogether Chicago to Redefine the Hacker Stereotype

July 10, 2021
New workshops that can help inspire students to pursue careers in technology..
Full Story

Aerospace Engineering Launches Virtual Summer Camps to Pique Students’ Interest in Aero.

July 2, 2021
Design an aircraft then watch it soar after launching it with a huge rubber band. Build a Mars lander to safely transport a real egg, then test the contraption by dropping it from a second story window.
Full Story

Undergrads Experience Materials Science Research Courtesy of the I-MRSEC REU

June 16, 2021
Ten undergraduate students are spending the summer of 2021 discovering what research is like.
Full Story

MatSE Afterschool Academy

MatSE Afterschool Academy

June 14, 2021
MatSE Afterschool Academy to Introduce Students to Materials Science and Beyond.
Full Story

Taylor Tucker Embraces Multidisciplinary Interest

Taylor Tucker Embraces Multidisciplinary Interest

June 14, 2021
Taylor Tucker Embraces Multidisciplinary Interest While Researching Task Collaboration.
Full Story

Exposes Franklin Middle Schoolers to Science, CS

What Studying Engineering at Illinois is Like?

May 25, 2021
NSBE’s Michaela Horn Exposes Franklin Middle Schoolers to Science, CS, and What Studying Engineering at Illinois is Like.
Full Story

Jenny Saves a Convertible.

Children’s-Book-Writing Duo/

May 19, 2021
Convertibles and Thunderstorms—Children’s-Book-Writing Duo on Their Way Thanks to Illinois Training and Encouragement from Mentors.
Full Story

Improve Learning in Engineering

Improve Learning in Engineering

May 17, 2021
Liebenberg Espouses Mini-Projects to Engage Students Emotionally, Improve Learning in Engineering.
Full Story

Joshua Whitely makes an adjustment to the 3D Bioprinter during the demo.

BIOE435 Capstone Projects

May 12, 2021
BIOE435 Capstone Projects - BIOE Seniors Use Knowledge/Skills to Problem Solve.
Full Story

Elani and Gonzalo shine a UV light on a rose that has absorbed a solution that has made it fluorescent.

Illinois Scientists Shine a (UV) Light on Fluorescence

May 7, 2021
What is fluorescence? What causes it?
Full Story

Joshua Whitely makes an adjustment to the 3D Bioprinter during the demo.

HackIllinois 2021 “Rekindled Connections” With The Tech Community

May 5, 2021
Annual student hackathon HackIllinois with the aim of developing projects on current problems facing society.
Full Story

A Shane Mayer-Gawlik image of the Bridger Aurora, part of his Night Skies photography collection exhibited at the Art-Science Festival.

The Art-Science Festival

April 26, 2021
Illinois Art-Science Festival: Illuminating the Universe...from the Quantum World to the Cosmos.
Full Story

Joshua Whitely makes an adjustment to the 3D Bioprinter during the demo.

Illinois Engineering Seniors Prepared to Change the World

April 22, 2021
Ready. Set. Go! Illinois Engineering Seniors Prepared to Change the World.
Full Story

HML 2021 Virtual Health

HML 2021 Virtual Health

April 19, 2021
Make-a-Thon Gives Citizen Scientists a Shot at Making Their Health-Related Innovations a Reality.
Full Story

I-MRSEC’s Music Video

I-MRSEC’s Music Video

April 7, 2021
I-MRSEC’s Music Video for EOH ’21 Plugs Graphene, 2D Materials
Full Story

Health Make-a-Thon Orientation

HML 2021 Health Orientation

March 30, 2021
HML 2021 Health Make-a-Thon Orientation Prepares Finalists for Competition.
Full Story

Andrea Perry shows Franklin students how to take apart the magnetic drawing board they received in their kit

Musical Magnetism

March 25, 2021
Musical Magnetism: Encouraging Franklin Middle Schoolers to Express Science Via the Arts.
Full Story

Carmen Paquette street performing.

Love of Science

March 9, 2021
Paquette Conveys Her Love of Science, Dance to Franklin STEAM Students Via Musical Magnetism.
Full Stroy

An Engineering Exploration participant exhibits the tower they built as part of the engineering challenge related to Civil Engineering

Engineering Exploration

March 2, 2021
SWE’s Engineering Exploration Outreach Lives Up to Its Name.

ChiS&E’s Family STEM Day

ChiS&E’s Family STEM Day

February 23, 2021
Helps Chicago Youngsters Progress Along the STEM Pipeline Toward Engineering.

Kathny Walsh

Kathy Walsh

February 17, 2021
On Her First Foray into STEAM, Kathy Walsh Acquaints Franklin Students with Microscopy, Haiku.

ChiS&E student

ChiS&E CPS Students

January 19, 2021
Illinois Undergrads Encourage ChiS&E CPS Students Toward Possible Careers in Engineering.

I-MRSEC’s Music Video

CISTEME365 Provides Year-Round PD/Community

January 4, 2021
to Illinois Teachers in Support of Informal STEM Education Efforts to Underserved Students.