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Beckman postdoc Guillermo L. Monroy is all ears

Guillermo L. Monroy is a longtime Illinois alum and postdoctoral researcher at the Beckman Institute, where he is developing a clinical tool to treat ear infections without antibiotics.
Published on April 25, 2024

Postdoc Guillermo L. Monroy stands on a bridged walkway in the Beckman Institute, smiling with his right arm extended on the railing. Guillermo L. Monroy at the Beckman Institute. Credit: Elizabeth Bello, Beckman Institute Communications Office. Guillermo L. Monroy works at the intersection of engineering, medicine and technical innovation. An alumnus of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Monroy is a postdoctoral research associate in the Biophotonics Imaging Laboratory at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology. 

At Beckman, Monroy is developing and testing a new device for safely treating bacterial ear infections without antibiotics. While Monroy’s career makes perfect sense in hindsight, it often felt non-linear in the moment, he said.

“I always felt like I was trying to pursue something that didn’t exist or fit into a well-defined path, so I felt that I had to figure things out myself," he said.

From Chicago to Champaign

Monroy grew up in Burbank, Illinois, near Chicago and attended Marist High School, a private, Catholic preparatory school known for its academic rigor.

“This was a huge sacrifice for my family. I am very grateful for the support from my parents and my grandparents to be able to attend,” Monroy said.

From a young age, Monroy was fascinated with technical gadgets and hardware. In high school, he was fortunate to have teachers who made a big difference in his life.

“Because I went [to Marist High School], I was able to be considered to come to Illinois for my undergraduate degree in computer engineering,” Monroy said.

Monroy joined the Illinois Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in 2007. While working on his undergraduate degree, he gained valuable experience outside of academia through positions and internships in the medical field, the IT industry, and undergraduate research opportunities. Monroy worked on a National Science Foundation REU project at the International Institute for Nanotechnology in 2010.

“When I was looking at different majors and jobs I could get after finishing, computer engineering made sense for me,” he said. “A lot of the concepts were like logic puzzles. … How do you design stuff to work, and to work better, faster and more efficiently?”

Upon finishing his undergraduate degree, Monroy was looking for something beyond using his computer engineering skills to improve computational performance year after year. He applied to both industry and graduate programs.

“I used to watch 'House,' and some of these fun-but-not-so-realistic medical shows and realized that I really enjoyed learning about physiology and the human body. Once I found out bioengineering was a field, it made a lot of sense to pursue.”

It's no surprise, then, that Monroy landed a graduate student position at Illinois in Stephen Boppart’s group, the Biophotonics Imaging Laboratory. Boppart is the W. W. Grainger Chair and professor of bioengineering and electrical and computer engineering. He is also a researcher at the Beckman Institute, where Monroy received the 2016 Beckman Institute Graduate Fellowship.

“I had doubts about staying at Illinois after already being here for four years because many students tend to move on, but I’m glad I kept an open mind," Monroy said. "As a graduate student, I was on a different part of campus, interacting with different people, but because it was familiar to me, it still felt like home."

After earning his master’s and doctoral degrees in bioengineering, Monroy was selected for a postdoctoral fellowship at the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, or ORISE, at the Division of Biomedical Physics within the Center for Disease and Radiological Health’s Office of Science and Engineering Laboratories at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2018.

There and back (to Beckman) again

The antibiotic-free treatment Monroy is developing uses a plasma device outside the ear. UV light from the plasma device breaks up individual atoms of oxygen and nitrogen molecules that flow into the ear and reduce bacterial levels. Ear infections are caused by biofilm formation, or bacterial build-up, behind the ear drum. The antibiotic-free treatment Monroy is developing uses a plasma device outside the ear that creates charged oxygen and nitrogen particles to create free radicals or reactive species, that flow into the ear and reduce bacterial levels. Schematic credit: Guillermo L. Monroy

The FDA's ORISE program fit Monroy's interest in medical devices. His work there explored the impact of neuromodulation devices: devices that measure, control or amplify the small electrical signals in nerves.

Monroy developed tools and approaches to quantify nerve health to assess overstimulation injury in the peripheral nervous system. Existing devices are implanted and used to relieve pain, reduce tremors or modulate nerve and organ function. Improper application of electrical stimulation can injure nerves, and in severe cases, patients can experience traumatic side effects. Monroy contributed to a larger, ongoing effort at ORISE to help regulators minimize subjectivity when evaluating the risk of new devices coming to market.

“Working with the FDA gave me a good idea of the role of research at the federal level. It was fascinating to see all the moving parts and it gave me a new appreciation for government and the medical device industry,” Monroy said. “I was constantly impressed and proud to work alongside the many dedicated professionals at the U.S. FDA that safeguard public health and regulate medical devices, drugs, food, cosmetics and more."

In February 2020, nearing the end of his time at the FDA, Guillermo attended the SPIE Photonics West conference in San Francisco and ran into a familiar face: Stephen Boppart.

“I was just seeing what was out there and chatting with people about what different jobs entail. [Boppart] mentioned revisiting a project that I had worked on and co-authored a publication for,” Monroy said.

Shortly thereafter, COVID-19 struck the U.S., causing nationwide company lockdowns and closures which strained Monroy’s job search. Fortunately, he returned to the Beckman Institute — and to Boppart’s research group — as a postdoctoral fellow.

Back at Beckman, Monroy revisited his past project in a new light, developed his mentoring skills and continued grant writing. The opportunity also allowed him to spend more time with his partner as she finished medical school.

“It was a totally different experience returning to Illinois for the third time because I was able to interact with senior faculty members, some that I had known for many years, in a more meaningful way. It’s been really nice being back here. It’s a great environment and I have almost everything I need in one building,” Monroy said.

Monroy is currently leading a project to develop a clinical tool to treat ear infections without antibiotics. The device, which sits outside the ear, generates free oxygen and nitrogen radical species that gently flow through the ear canal and eardrum to reduce bacterial load in the middle ear.

Another of Monroy's devices is a handheld probe tethered to a computer cart. The system uses optical coherence tomography, an imaging technique that uses infrared light to image tissue in 3D like optical ultrasound, to help physicians and researchers track ear infections by scanning the eardrum for bacteria or fluid.

An important step in developing devices like these is demonstrating that they are safe and effective. Monroy is adapting this treatment method to work in the ear without causing any thermal, acoustic, electrical or cellular damage. His work involves everything from computer modeling to plasma medicine to veterinary science.

He said that none of it would be possible without his collaborators, including researchers and staff members in his home group; Beckman's Biomedical Imaging Center; the Laboratory for Optical Physics and Engineering; professors Daniel Llano, Thanh Huong Nguyen, and Deana McDonagh; local clinical partners at Carle Hospital; and clinical partners at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

“To get this project to work, it’s taken the dedication and effort from many groups on and off campus and it’s been years in the making,” Monroy said.

Work-life balance and the future

Having a work-life balance is essential to Monroy, who believes that he wouldn’t be as effective or creative at work without it.

Postdoc Guillermo L. Monroy balances on an interactive chair in the Beckman Institute atrium lobby. "Balance is super important. I think the only reason I feel that I can be efficient is because I 'm focused on relationships and hobbies outside of work," Monroy said. Credit: Elizabeth Bello, Beckman Institute Communications Office. In his free time, he frequently travels to Chicago to visit his partner and enjoys spending quality time with her and his dog, Shake, a lab-pointer mix. Monroy likes to keep up with exercise, especially weightlifting, and practiced Kung Fu in the past. He also enjoys playing board games, video games, and guitar.

Looking ahead, Monroy is actively applying for professorships, prioritizing those where he can teach, lead research projects, and importantly, mentor students.

“My work pulls me in a lot of different directions, but I really like it. It is a privilege to do this kind of work and I hope I get to continue it. It integrates a lot of people and knowledge from different fields (like biologists, clinicians and engineers) and for me, it’s interesting to learn about these different topics and then bring it all together to advance medicine and help others,” Monroy said.

Editor's note: 

Media contact: Jenna Kurtzweil,

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  • Guillermo Monroy
    Guillermo Monroy's directory photo.

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