Varela is interested in creating medical devices that will help us study and address healthcare disparities

Claudia Varela’s journey to the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology (HST) program began when, as an undergraduate at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), she came across an email promoting training in biomedical laboratory techniques through the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD) program. Funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH), IMSD was geared toward providing research opportunities for members of underrepresented populations, and to preparing participants to subsequently apply to PhD programs. Born and raised in Mexico, and having immigrated to the US to pursue a degree in bioengineering, Varela was an ideal candidate for the program.

Upon her mastery of training on lab techniques, the program assisted her in finding a lab that matched her interests, and she joined the lab of Francisco Villarreal, a professor of medicine in the Division of Cardiology at UCSD. Her experience in this lab proved instrumental in her decision to apply to HST. Not only did Villarreal mentor Varela as a scientist, he, along with her lab colleagues, helped build her confidence and realize her full potential. She says, “They were all crucial in getting me excited and passionate about pursuing research and helping people. It’s really because of them that I even considered pursuing a PhD.” She adds, “It was through the training and the mentorship that I got through that lab that I really believed I could even be admitted to MIT.”

Varela, an HST Medical Engineering and Medical Physicis (MEMP) PhD graduate, has been working in in the the Therapeutic Technology, Design and Development (TTDD) lab. The TTDD lab is directed by Ellen Roche, W.M. Keck Career Development Professor in Biomedical Engineering, MIT, an HST faculty member, and a core faculty member at the MIT Institute of Medical Engineering and Science (IMES)—IMES is HST’s home at MIT. There, Varela has pursued her interest in developing devices that deliver both mechanical assistance and biological therapy to the heart, pursuing research on the mechanisms of disease. Varela was drawn to HST because of her interest in applying both biology and engineering to a clinical problem, and, through her work in Roche’s lab, she learned that she wants to create medical devices that help us study and address healthcare disparities. “HST was life changing in many ways, by providing an additional layer of exposure and awareness of the clinical world that I don’t think any other program would have provided,” Varela says.

Throughout her time in HST, Varela has carried on the mentorship that she received in her undergraduate years. Serving as an HST Student Diversity Ambassador, she worked on issues related to diversity, equality, inclusion and justice (DEIJ), and to fostering a supportive community for students from underrepresented populations. Together with the four other HST students who launched these efforts, Varela received  an MIT Bridge Builder Award at the annual MIT Awards ceremony in 2019.

Varela plans to use her passion for bioengineering and social justice by becoming a professor. “I’m very passionate about training the next generation of scientists,” she says. “I would love the privilege to mentor and help people reach their goals. In terms of research, I’m interested in improving conditions for patients who have experienced disparities in care, through the development of device technologies.” Following graduation, she’ll be working as a postdoctoral associate in Roche’s lab in order to finish up some of her other projects.

In addition to being a bioengineer, Varela is an avid dancer and choreographer—she also received a BA in dance at UCSD. She explains the similarities between choreographing, dancing and engineering: “I see this parallelism between choreographing a dance and pursuing research…If we think of choreographing a dance (as going from) an idea in your head to movement on the stage, there’s a lot of trial and error in the creative process to ultimately find the sequence of movements that end up portraying your message or producing the feelings you are trying to elicit from the audience.”

“This is very similar to how one goes from having a research question to generating the results that will ultimately make or break a hypothesis.” she explains.

Just as she strives to make a difference with her academics, Varela dances with the intent to promote social change through her dancing and choreography: “I am interested in performing work that make people think about society, about social issues and about how we achieve social justice,” she says. Currently, she dances with Danza Orgánica, a social-justice oriented dance theater company, with whom she performs around New England.