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A traveler on bioengineering’s many paths

Immunology research, public health service, and student leadership are all part of senior Julian Zulueta’s journey toward becoming a physician-scientist.

Laura Rosado | MIT News correspondent

Seeking an opportunity to do something impactful in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, Julian Zulueta applied for an internship with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, through MIT’s PKG Public Service Center. During the summer of 2020, he analyzed requisition data to better understand how different regions across the United States were affected by Covid-19, and what resources would be most effective on the ground.

“We would talk with hospitals and see what they were going through on the ground level,” says Zulueta, an MIT senior majoring in bioengineering. “What were their cities looking like? How were health care workers responding? And how could we deploy epidemiologists or contact tracers to those different regions?”

The experience gave him a multifaceted perspective on public health and sparked a passion for public service leadership. While he hopes to attend medical school and contribute to immunology and cancer research as a physician-scientist, Zulueta is also committed to advancing the human side of medicine.

“In public health, a lot of times we think about it from a scientific standpoint, like medicine or biology,” he says. “But we also need to consider the social aspects.”

A holistic view

As an undergraduate researcher, Zulueta has focused on immunoengineering, specifically how the immune system reacts to cancer. He has worked in a number of labs through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) to get hands-on experience in both wet lab and computational techniques, with the goal of developing more predictive and preventative ways to combat cancer.

Coming into MIT, Zulueta already had an interest in biology from classes he took in high school. Witnessing his grandmother’s melanoma diagnosis and treatment also spurred him to think not only about the technical aspects of cancer research, but the social impact as well.

When he was younger, Zulueta spent a lot of time with his grandmother, whether fishing together in the Florida Keys or chatting while she cooked croquetas and other favorite dishes. From this time together, and as he took her to doctor’s appointments throughout her recovery, Zulueta witnessed the deep impact that cancer has on individual lives.

That view of cancer research, and of health care more broadly, is best encapsulated by Zulueta’s favorite class at MIT, 7.45 (The Hallmarks of Cancer), which frames discussions around cancer in terms of people.

“We were given case studies, a problem of a patient with cancer, and had to think about how we would treat them,” says Zulueta. “How do we think about their overall health, not just in treating the cancer, but also improving quality of life.”

Following his internship with the CDC, Zulueta joined the MIT Undergraduate Association’s community service committee and has worked to inspire his peers to pursue service both during and after their time at MIT.

As president of the Bioengineering Undergraduate Board, he helps organize alumni talks, career fairs, and social events, and advocates for changes with the curriculum. One focal point has been increasing the flexibility of electives. For example, Zulueta has taken a number of computer science classes that have proved invaluable in his work, and he wants to ensure future students can easily access the same opportunities.

Unexpected parallels

Zulueta is also pursuing a minor in the history of architecture, art, and design. He cites the prominent art culture in Miami, his hometown, as sowing the seeds of this interest.

The minor “teaches about the invisibility of people, or of art, and how we can engage with that as architects or art historians,” says Zulueta. “I’ve always liked learning about how people think, how societies work and so forth.”

He’s taken classes such as 4.607 (Thinking About Architecture: In History and at Present) and 4.344 (Advanced Photography and Related Media). In the latter, his final project examined his own history and identity, in particular how his academic interest in cancer and grandmother’s cancer diagnosis are intrinsically linked. He used cyanotypes, a photographic medium that changes with sunlight, and arranged them on a mirror to not only present his own identity, but invite viewers to reflect on their own as well.

In reflecting on his time at MIT, Zulueta sees parallels between biological engineering and interest in art history, too.

“A lot of what I do in bioengineering is with imaging, focusing on little details, maybe the contours of cells or how things move,” says Zulueta. “What art history taught me is how to focus on the small details because at the end of the day, the small steps make the big steps count. It really taught me to hone in and be more curious.”

After graduation, Zulueta plans to attend medical school. He wants to continue to contribute to the field of immunology through research and continue to serve as a mentor and inspiration for future physicians.

For now, Zulueta is looking forward to his last semester at MIT, particularly finishing out the season with the lightweight crew team. He’s been rowing throughout his entire college career, and though the 6 a.m. wakeups can be challenging, he’s always appreciated the camaraderie of the team.

“If you don’t have all eight people in the boat, you can’t go out on the water,” says Zulueta. “Your team relies on you. You’re a part of something bigger.”

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