Roxanne Beltran can scarcely recall a moment in her life that wasn’t defined by curiosity. Growing up in San Diego, California, she had an endless stream of questions about how the world worked and often asked her mother for math problems to solve. Her teenage years were spent at a charter school that eschewed traditional education models, focusing instead on project-based learning such as science fairs, inventions, and public exhibitions. “That school sort of catapulted my childlike discovery mode into actual, real-life science mode,” she recalls.
In 2009, Beltran enrolled at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), as a marine biology major. While she had always loved the pursuit of knowledge, she found large lecture halls, relatively inaccessible professors, and hefty textbooks intimidating, she says, and had to teach herself how best to learn under the circumstances. Independent study projects and field research, Beltran discovered, brought her out of the classroom and offered the hands-on work that inspired her. She could look out at the ocean, ask big-picture questions, and figure out how best to answer them.
As a student, Beltran “was just insanely motivated,” recalls Chris Reeves, who was then the programs manager of UCSC’s Seymour Marine Discovery Center, where Beltran completed a work-study program overseeing the training of volunteers. He recalls how she taught herself computer programming languages while maintaining a high GPA, noting that through it all, she also worked diligently to “teach [aquarium] volunteers how to talk to the public.”
By the time she graduated in 2013, her path forward was clear, Beltran says. “I felt most at home when I was crunching numbers or collecting data or reading the scientific literature and trying to find my place in it,” she explains. “I knew that grad school would be a . . . very extreme version of that.”
She headed north, completing her master’s and beginning her studies of Antarctic Weddell seals (Leptonychotes weddellii) at the University of Alaska’s Anchorage campus before moving to its Fairbanks branch for her PhD. In her dissertation, Beltran investigated how Weddell seals—the southernmost mammals on Earth—are able to complete major life events, such as reproduction and molting, during a two- or three-month-long summer window. It takes about six weeks to wean a pup, putting mothers about two weeks behind on molting compared to those without offspring. Studying molting in wild animals is extremely difficult, she notes, and there’s still much to learn about its importance.
Beltran also wanted to pass her positive experiences in the field on to others, she says, particularly women and minorities who might face financial hurdles or discrimination. She has published several papers espousing the benefits of getting students outdoors and advocates for safer learning environments for minority scientists. That dedication also extends to schoolchildren she worked with while in Alaska. In 2017, Beltran and her husband, a fellow UCSC marine biologist, published A Seal Named Patches, a children’s book describing their Antarctic research, and incorporated the book into a K-12 outreach program that has reached more than 4,000 students.
After finishing her PhD in 2018, Beltran accepted a faculty position at UCSC, but deferred for a year and a half to complete a postdoc under Dan Costa, a marine mammal biologist at the university. For her project, she pursued similar questions about breeding and molting in Northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) at nearby Año Nuevo State Park.
Today, as the head of her own lab, Beltran still collaborates with Costa to investigate how size differences between young male and female elephant seals affect their diving behavior, and whether males and females react differently when threatened with starvation or predation. Together, the two labs are also tagging elephant seals with audio recorders before their migration to the North Pacific to determine the sources and repercussions of man-made sounds in the oceans on marine animals.
When Costa retires, he’ll be passing leadership of the university’s elephant seal program to Beltran, he tells The Scientist. “I’m so excited about it because she’s organizing things in a way that I didn’t have the capacity to do,” he says, adding that her commitment to diversity and inclusiveness is awe-inspiring. “I couldn’t be more delighted about the fact that I’m in a position to pass off my program that I inherited to somebody that’s so capable.”