Jonathan You: Health Justice and the Importance of Being Heard

Jonathan You at work in the Essex Lab

By Martha Henry

Teenagers aren’t generally known for their self-awareness and commitment to service. Jonathan You is an exception.

The nineteen-year-old rising junior at Harvard is majoring in Molecular and Cellular Biology with a minor in Global Health and Health Policy. “My academic interest in global health was sparked by Case Studies in Global Health: Biosocial Perspectives, a class that provided me with novel viewpoints on healthcare inequity and social medicine,” he said.

Jonathan has childhood roots in Cincinnati, Hong Kong, and Massachusetts. After graduating from Brookline High School, he spent six weeks on a State Department program in Xi’an, China before starting classes at Harvard. The summer following his freshman year, he studied at Beijing Language and Culture University and is now fluent in Mandarin.

Through the Summer Undergraduate Research in Global Health (SURGH) program at Harvard, Jonathan is currently working on phylogenetic analyses of HIV in the lab of Prof. Max Essex, Chair of the Harvard AIDS Initiative (HAI). “The chance to sit down and him [Essex] for half an hour is really pretty mind-blowing,” said Jonathan. “Global health isn’t only about biology; social factors are just as important. His profound understanding of the HIV/AIDS epidemic at every level is exactly what’s required to tackle a global health issue of such scale. I have so much to learn from him.”

Sally Madiba and Jonathan You. Photo by Lucia Ricci
Sally Madiba and Jonathan You. Photo by Lucia Ricci

Using phylogenetic analysis, HAI researchers can compare samples of HIV and determine how closely linked infections are to each other. “The genes of HIV mutate quickly enough that you can track the movement of the virus through a population by looking at the accumulation of changes in its genes over time,” explained Jonathan. “These movement patterns can be used to identify vulnerable subpopulations, establish factors that affect transmission, and inform public health interventions.”

His lab skills were honed with earlier internships at the Cram Lab at Northeastern University, where he investigated genetic regulation of distal tip cell migration and gonad development in C. elegans; the Krichevsky Lab at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where he conducted experiments on glioblastomas; and the Soukas Lab at Massachusetts General Hospital, where he explored the genetic basis of obesity and diabetes.

For Jonathan, health justice is a passion. His work on HIV/AIDS in the Essex Lab aligns with his passion. So does his work at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter.

Located in the basement of the University Lutheran Church in Cambridge, the homeless shelter has 24 beds and is one of a handful of student-run shelters across the country. Jonathan has made beds, cooked meals, and supervised the overnight volunteers. As the incoming Director of Resource Advocacy, he’ll be responsible for connecting guests with social and medical services.

Working at the shelter has widened Jonathan’s view of the world. “There’s so much more diversity of life and opinion and background than I could have imagined,” he said. “In addition to Americans, we welcome guests from Latin America, Nigeria, France, Russia, China—all over the world.”

“Those most visibly homeless might be people holding up signs or panhandling in Harvard Square, but not every person who’s experiencing homelessness presents like that,” he said. “There are people who read a book a day at the public library. There are people who are actively looking for work—sending out resumes every day. And there are people who hold a steady job but just aren’t earning enough money to afford a home.”

Jonathan hasn’t decided what he’ll do when he graduates from Harvard in 2018. Medical school or an MD/PhD program are both options. His work at the shelter may already be making him a better doctor. “I think I’ve become a better listener,” he said. “Sitting down and just listening to someone can be so powerful. I hadn’t realized how important that could be—to just be heard.”

“In school, so much of your experience is focused on you and developing you,” he said. “There’s something incredibly special about giving your time to someone else.”

Title image: Jonathan You at work in the Essex Laboratory. Photo by Lucia Ricci