Julie Hugunin, S’16, straddles worlds, literally and academically. A biology major in Northeastern’s Honors Program and a 2016 Presidential Global Fellow, she plans to pursue an MD/PhD program starting in 2017 to combine her clinical and research interests as well as bring a mental-health focus to patient care.
Hugunin’s co-ops at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital, in Cape Town, South Africa, and Moderna Therapeutics, a drug-development company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, set her on this path, opening her eyes to how bridging disciplines sparks innovation. She has spent her summers and on-campus semesters complementing her coursework with positions in two labs: the Abbvie/Abbott Bioresearch Center, in Worcester, Massachusetts, and that of Erin Cram, associate professor at Northeastern. Hugunin’s three-year stint in the latter led to her being second author of an original research paper that appeared in the journal Developmental Biology last month. “Northeastern is about putting yourself out there and being fearless,” she says.
The recipient of numerous awards, including the Provost Research Award at Northeastern and a Regional Meeting Travel Award from the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Hugunin has maintained a 3.96 grade point average while also devoting herself to community service as an emergency radiology volunteer at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Here, she provides insight into how her four years at Northeastern shaped her passion for a rigorous, holistic approach to healthcare.
How did your co-ops and your volunteer work at Massachusetts General Hospital shape your decision to go into an MD/PhD program?
In my first co-op I was an intern in the neurosurgery department at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital in Cape Town. Twice a week the interns had “theater days,” where we stood next to the surgeons in the operating room watching them perform surgeries from 7 a.m. until 4 p.m. On my second day there I saw a surgeon cut open a skull and reveal the brain. I was so nervous—I used to pass out at the sight of blood. But everything changed in that room; I became passionate about the mission of medicine. We observed procedures such as shunt insertions to treat hydrocephalus, tumor resections, and surgeries to correct birth defects of the spine. The other three days I helped out in the wards, working with the children. I also had two clinical research projects: making a database of the hospital’s completed hydrocephalus surgeries to track infection rates and compiling the literature on blood loss during craniosynostosis surgeries for a paper on the subject.
My second co-op was at Moderna Therapeutics, in Cambridge, where I was a research assistant in the neurology division of the company’s New Ventures Lab. There I could explore the research side of neuroscience. I was involved in early discovery, looking for new drug targets for brain disorders. One of our main projects was to find new ways to treat pain—a pressing need, given the opioid epidemic.
I knew from my first co-op that medicine was my purpose. But it was at Moderna that I began to understand how important the link between research and practice was. My position at MGH as an emergency radiology volunteer underscored that. There, I shadowed an oncologist and saw many patients who were getting the newest treatments and enrolled in clinical trials. Doctors must be up to date and aware of the most innovative research available in their field to give their patients the best care.
Is there an experience that stands out as bringing the pieces of the research-clinical puzzle together for you?
Yes. When I was at Moderna we wanted to test one of our drugs in a mouse model. Delivering therapeutics to the brain is very difficult because of the blood-brain barrier and because medications have to travel against gravity to get to the brain. So we were looking at tons of different ways to deliver the drug, including injecting it into the spinal column. Because I had seen so many shunt insertions in Cape Town for hydrocephalus, I knew that it was possible to have direct access to the ventricles—the interconnected cavities in the brain where cerebrospinal fluid is produced. The procedure is invasive, but it’s only a half-hour surgery. I was making the argument to my boss that for all these diseases where there’s no cure or current treatment, why not try this? You have a different knowledge base when you practice while doing research. I was able to think outside the box.
It’s exceptional for an undergraduate to be a contributor to an academic paper. How did your work in Erin Cram’s lab at Northeastern lead to that?
Before coming to Northeastern, I’d had research experience at AbbVie, an Abbott Bioresearch Center in Worcester, Massachusetts. When I was back on campus, I didn’t want to lose any of the hands-on skills I’d learned. The Cram Lab was looking for an undergraduate researcher to help with basic research on the germ lines of Caenorhabditis elegans, a type of worm that is about one millimeter long. My job was to run experiments on various proteins to learn their role in enabling C. elegans to switch from producing sperm to producing eggs—as a hermaphrodite, C. elegans does both at different points in its development. I started the project with doctoral student Alyssa D. Cecchetelli, and worked with her on it for three years. She told me, “You’ve been with me on this project from the beginning. We couldn’t have done the work without you. We want you to be part of the writing process.”
You have received many honors, including being named a Presidential Global Fellow, and devoted yourself to community service as well research, clinical work, and rigorous academics. What is one experience on campus that had an impact you didn’t expect?
One class that I took stands out: a graduate course called Mindfulness: Theory and Practice, taught by Mariya Shiyko, assistant professor in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences. It was unlike any other course I’ve taken here.
I had always focused on research and medicine, and I didn’t think about the emotional side of things. For example, I never realized that there was a link between meditating and positive effects on the body. Our homework was to meditate every day, and in class we learned about the research behind the practice.
Mindfulness helped me in ways I never imagined it could. It made me so much calmer, so much happier. That personal experience has made me want to provide the same for others. When I’m a physician and a researcher, I want it to be part of my approach. In Cape Town there was a little boy under our care who had been hit by a ricocheting bullet while he was playing outside. He recovered completely physically, but not emotionally. He was scared to go outside. When he was discharged, I told his doctor, “He needs something more, he’s not all the way there.” Unfortunately many places lack psychiatrists and therapists. The focus is on helping people physically, which of course is important, but focusing on the mental aspect is important too.