A foundation for success

With a strong start at K-State, Luis J. Montaner (pictured left) pushes boundaries in scientific research

Originally hailing from Puerto Rico, Luis J. Montaner discovered a unique opportunity to attend Kansas State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. He decided to pack his bags and move to what, at the time, felt like the middle of nowhere.

“Being from Puerto Rico and not being familiar with the Midwest, the first expectation was apprehension and fear, but I thought ‘Let’s see how this works out’,” said Luis. “My expectations were not the experience I had. It became clear very quickly that the fact that I was from Puerto Rico didn’t change the type of opportunities I had available.”

Luis, a Marshall Scholar, now works with an endowed chair professorship and as vice president of scientific operations at The Wistar Institute, an independent, nonprofit research institution in biomedical science, located on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus. However, his journey began with the strong foundation and irreplaceable opportunities that he found in his K-State experience.

As a student, Luis welcomed many leadership opportunities through the Student Government Association, Blue Key, Pre-Vet Club, International House and the Puerto Rican Community Group. Luis was also able to support his K-State education through the work-study program. Within the College of Veterinary Medicine, he served as a student researcher in the electron microscopy lab. Additionally, during vet school, Luis got the opportunity to study immunodeficiency virus at Harvard University’s New England Regional Primate Research Center.

Because he was new to K-State, Luis did not expect the wide variety of scholarships that were available to him. He was able to apply for many scholarships that prepared him to apply for nationally competitive scholarships and set the foundation for his future opportunities.

Eventually, these university scholarships led him to apply for the Marshall Scholarship. Although he did not originally believe he was a competitive applicant, Nancy Twiss, a K-State faculty member, encouraged him to apply for the unique and prestigious opportunity.

“The environment at K-State is very student-focused, and they saw value in students that the students themselves may not acknowledge because they didn’t have anyone on the outside to tell them that they were indeed worth the investment,” said Luis. “The opportunities I had after K-State are linked to the investment of the K-State faculty, and the early investments made by many in offering scholarships to empower students like me to excel.”

Through the Marshall application process, Luis was able to brainstorm what he wanted his future to look like and define his career goals. He saw the application as added professional mentorship, and he was honored at the opportunity to apply. When he was named as a  Marshall Scholar, Luis felt incredulous.

The Marshall Scholarship set the pace for many of his future experiences. After he received the award, he attended University of Oxford in England, and completed his Ph.D. As Luis was about to finish his Ph.D., he was promptly recruited by The Wistar Institute in Philadelphia. In an extremely rare order of events, Luis received a faculty appointment in the summer of 1995, prior to defending his Ph.D. the following fall.  

Since then, Luis has been at The Wistar Institute leading research teams addressing current public health needs. He has built a program around researching a cure for HIV, leading one of the largest global coalitions directed towards reaching a cure against HIV and directing clinical trials testing novel therapy strategies (beat-HIV.org). Additionally, he also directs studies on ovarian and pancreatic cancer therapeutics, opioid addiction and immunology.

Most recently, Luis has joined effort in researching strategies against COVID-19 by securing government permits to grow the virus in Wistar’s Bio-Safety Level 3 labs and advance several compounds with therapeutic potential to address persistent symptoms.

Since his time at K-State, Luis has grown immensely as a global professional in his field. He attributes much of his growth to his strong start as a K-State student. He believes that, while the payoff may come much later, investment in the university setting is essential to overall success.

“My experience supports how important the initial steps that students take in a university environment are to the impact they’re going to have in their careers thereafter,” said Luis. “I think that the insight is in how important early scholarship can be to initiate a synergistic chain lifting self-confidence within the student and opening a new door for the next opportunity.”

Luis lives first-hand the impact scholarships have on aspiring students. Scholarships allowed him to invest time into his university experience and focus on school. With investments of generous donors who supported his K-State experience with gifts of $5,000, he was able to amplify those investments in science development that has led to returns of over $68 million in research support he has directed toward the benefit of many.

“There’s really no limit to the impact that a student could have from the foundation they will receive,” said Luis. “Before you know it, that initial scholarship that supported a student was the tipping point for how other opportunities followed or were possible.” To donors who support K-State, Luis would say, “It is true that you’re investing in changing the world one student at a time. The change your gift can create is real.  I remember K-State because of the people and the change this had in me as a student. It wasn’t about the check or the money alone; it was about the investment the faculty made in me in conjunction to scholarships. Both are indispensable to securing a lasting investment.”

Written by: Ariana Brancato

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Joan Burton

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Austin Schilling Director of Development - Veterinary Medicine