ASU graduate student combats cancer with math

Brendon Colbert named a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow

July 23, 2018

Brendon K. Colbert has been interested in the human immune system ever since his youngest brother was diagnosed with a large number of food allergies. That fueled his desire to study the intersection of biological sciences and control systems engineering.

As one of 2,000 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellows this year, Colbert will continue his research in those areas as a doctoral student in mechanical engineering at Arizona State University. He’ll explore how to model and control dynamic systems to behave in medically beneficial ways. Portrait of Brendon K. Colbert Brendon K. Colbert was selected as one of six ASU engineering National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellows. Download Full Image

“I think control systems engineering can contribute greatly to the biological and medical fields,” said Colbert, who received concurrent bachelor degrees in mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering from Duke University in 2016. “Understanding the dynamics of biological systems will give a number of insights into how the body functions and how we can control different processes to ensure people are healthy.”

The main focus of Colbert’s research is to determine mathematically how the immune system interacts with cancer and develop a treatment strategy to deliver the appropriate medications to patients so their immune systems can kill cancer cells. 

“The innovative part of this research is we’re trying to develop treatment protocols based upon the state of the patient’s own immune system,” Colbert said.

“From a control system engineering viewpoint, we would treat the immune system and the cancer cells as a dynamic system that’s constantly changing through time,” he said. “By understanding mathematically how the system changes and how we can alter it, we can find optimal treatment strategies.”

Colbert’s decision to pursue that work in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering was driven by the opportunity to work on projects involving control systems engineering and the immune system with Associate Professor Matthew Peet as his research advisor.

“I had read some of Dr. Peet’s research and thought that it was a novel blend of control systems engineering and biology,” Colbert said. “He had published a few papers regarding how the immune system could be modeled mathematically, which I thought was intriguing and very relevant to my interests.”

Colbert says being awarded the NSF fellowship means a great deal to him. The funding it provides will allow him to focus exclusively on his research for the next three years.

He believes his research proposal stood out from more than 12,000 fellowship applicants because it demonstrated the potential of his work to advance knowledge at the intersection of biology and control systems engineering.

“I’m honored to have received the award,” Colbert said. “I’m also proud of how I’ve grown as a researcher these past few years and that I was able to put together a proposal that was accepted.”

After completing his doctoral studies, Colbert intends to remain in academia or a related field of research with the long-term goal of becoming a professor.

Colbert has been inspired by many professors at ASU and Duke University to teach and continue his research.

“The support I’ve been given by a number of professors and teachers has been instrumental in bringing me to this point in my life,” Colbert said. “I would love to give back through mentoring and supporting other students to pursue their passions.”

More about the 2018 NSF Graduate Fellow from the Fulton Schools of Engineering:

Logan Mathesen engineering solutions to big data challenges

Lexi Bounds aims to improve lives with synthetic biology

Alisha Menon sets her mind to research brain-inspired computing

Scott Freitas wants to use computer science to solve society's toughest problems

Amanda Stoneman

Science Writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


ASU's Interactive Plan of Study is getting more than just a face-lift

University's graduate program tracking tool, iPOS, is releasing a substantial update

July 23, 2018

Tracking your graduate program progress is about to become a breeze not just for Arizona State University students, but also for faculty and support staff. The Interactive Plan of Study is going mobile and will be a whole lot more automated.

The iPOS (pronounced “eye-paws”) has helped guide graduate students through their studies at ASU since 2007, a core resource to the functions of ASU’s graduate community. Like an app to track fitness goals, the purpose of iPOS is to track student progress toward completing their program by making sure students’ academic plan will fulfill their department’s degree requirements. It also provides connectivity between students, departments, advisers, coordinators and all those who provide support for graduate student success. Interactive Plan of Study iPOS update coming in Fall 2018 Download Full Image

“iPOS is a very important tool for students to be successful and is a required task for graduation," said Brian Mattson, director of graduate program services at the Graduate College and the lead for the iPOS redesign project. "It helps students create a plan that gets them from Point A to Point B. It’s also invaluable to graduate advisers who may be advising hundreds of students, each with different program requirements. It saves them time and cuts back on confusion, allowing them to focus on what’s important — the student’s goals and interests.” 

Lynn Pratte, an academic success coordinator at the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, agrees.

“I use the iPOS all day, every day. Every interaction I have with a student begins with me looking at their iPOS to see where they are in their program and what degree requirements are left for them to complete," she said. "Some of our programs have restrictions on the types of classes that students can take, so while I am looking to see what the basic degree requirements are, I am also looking to see what classes are available for the student to take in the future. This allows the student and I to have a conversation about their immediate needs and provide options for future semesters."

Although iPOS has received numerous updates and improvements over the years, graduate students’ needs and expectations — as well as technology — have drastically evolved, making it evident the iPOS needed to push out a major redesign. 

“We had a student focus group talk about their experiences with the existing iPOS, and they shared that it was outdated to look at. This wasn’t a huge surprise; since it was originally launched in 2007, the user interface was rather old-fashioned compared to today’s standards,” Mattson said.

There is no out-of-the-box solution that can serve the diverse needs of ASU’s 450-plus graduate programs and community; therefore, iPOS is a unique, custom-built application running within PeopleSoft. To upgrade it, a dynamic team including the Graduate College’s technical team, the University Technology Office and expert consultants has been assembled and is working on rebuilding the iPOS system from the ground up. The goals are to improve performance, reduce barriers and make the student experience more enjoyable.

The two most desired features being added are a completely redesigned interface that’s mobile-friendly and preloaded core requirements. Other enhancements include fully electronic pass/fail, real-time GPA updates, milestone tracking, student and faculty pictures, live My ASU alerts, format tracking and FAQ tips strategically scattered throughout the software.

Last month the Graduate College offered a first look at the new iPOS at a preview event for graduate support staff. With representation from every college and school, more than 150 staff came to see a sneak peek of the new features.

“I am excited about how user-friendly it will be and the fact that students can complete their iPOS on their mobile devices. I think this is a huge improvement to the system that will greatly benefit students,” Pratte said. 

The event wasn’t all show-and-tell, however; the Graduate College also hosted a listening session to gather comments and feedback on the new enhancements. The feedback from that event will be incorporated to make further improvements.

The revamped iPOS is set to launch during fall 2018. Some system testing for iPOS will begin next month to ensure a smooth transition upon release. Current functionality will not be affected by the testing.