Academics Health and Medicine

One graduate’s journey

After suffering a life-altering accident that paralyzed him, Juan Beltran found success in recovery and academic and community pursuits.
Juan Beltran
Juan Fernando Flechas Beltran

Juan Fernando Flechas Beltran’s decision to pursue biomedical engineering was a natural fusion of his interests in engineering and medicine, reaffirmed by an internship experience at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

But his true commitment to his field was catalyzed by a life-altering accident on Jan. 6, 2023.

While riding his motorcycle, Beltran was struck by an SUV. Due to his injuries, he was paralyzed from the chest down.

“As I hit the ground, I realized that I became paralyzed from my chest down. At the ER the doctors said that I would not be able to continue living my life as I used to do, but that there was some possibility for me to recover motor functions on my lower body,” he said.

The prognosis was grim, yet through a seven-hour emergency surgery and an arduous recovery, he regained mobility against all odds. This personal battle with paralysis not only deepened his appreciation for life but also underscored the transformative potential of biomedical advancements.

“I like to think of this accident as an opportunity that allowed me to have a more in-depth understanding of the needs of individuals affected by paralysis,” Beltran shared. “I was able to regain my ability to walk. What the doctors said was impossible; then improbable, became a reality. Experiencing the fear of becoming paralyzed and witnessing the ability of our bodies to heal after extensive trauma, has further stoked my commitment to impact my community and improve the health of others.”

Beltran, born in Orlando, Florida, but raised in Colombia, has bridged the distance between these two worlds, making his mark at the University of Miami. Pursuing a major in biomedical engineering with a concentration in biomaterials and tissue engineering, his academic and personal journey reflects a combination of resilience, innovation, and commitment to improving the lives of others.

At the University, Beltran found an academic home that nurtured his interests and ambitions. Mentored by Courtney Dumont, assistant professor of biomedical engineering in the College of Engineering, he flourished in the NeuSTEM Laboratory, where he focused on developing biomaterials to aid recovery from spinal cord injuries.

His work under Dumont's guidance and the support from the Florida Georgia Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation fellowship allowed him to explore innovative treatments, including the development of nanoparticles for gene therapy.

“[Courtney] has believed and supported me since the day we met as well as encouraging me to become the best version of myself,” he said.

In addition to his fellowship, Beltran participated in projects like the BiomatErial Accumulating Carriers for On-demand Nanotherapy (BEACON), where he led efforts to develop a drug delivery system with potential applications in various medical fields, from nerve damage to cancer.

Beltran’s academic excellence and leadership were paralleled by his commitment to the University community. He took on leadership roles in numerous student organizations, notably as president of the Alliance of Latin American Students (ALAS), where he also contributed to the Latin Leadership Council. His efforts were instrumental in organizing campus events like Canefiesta 2022. He also worked as a data and evaluation assistant at the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs (MSA).

“During my time working in MSA, I had the opportunity to continue interacting with a wide variety of students and student leaders. This school year, I had the privilege of being a member of the 2023 Students of Color Symposium (SOCS) Committee focused on the importance of mental health and well-being,” he said.

His favorite campus experiences involve the vibrant student life on the Coral Gables Campus, from playing beach volleyball between classes to participating in Homecoming Week. Yet, as he prepares to graduate from the University, he acknowledges that it is the smaller, everyday experiences, like the warm Miami weather and morning coffees in the biomedical engineering office, that he will miss the most.

Upon graduation, Beltran is set to pursue a doctoral degree in biomedical engineering at Tufts University School of Engineering. Additionally, he will be commissioning as a Medical Service Corps officer in the U.S. Army, allowing him to continue his dual path in military service and medical research, harnessing his experiences to fuel his passion for innovation in biomedical engineering while making an impact on the health and well-being of others.