Zuleika Franco: Getting to Know God Better Through Biology

by Nathan Foster

Azusa Pacific University senior biology major Zuleika Franco ’23 dreams of becoming a physician one day. She took a big step toward achieving this goal last summer when she interned at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, the top hospital in California and second ranked hospital in the nation. More than 600 students from across the country applied to the summer program and Franco was 1 of just 20 selected to participate. “It was pretty intense. I honestly didn’t expect to get it, but I’m so grateful that I did,” she said. “It was an amazing opportunity to learn from renowned physicians and other healthcare professionals.”

During the internship, Franco shadowed Bahareh M. Schweiger, DO, MPH, a pediatric endocrinologist, and Wendy L. Sacks, MD, an adult endocrinologist. “Dr. Sacks specializes in thyroid cancer. I got to see a lot of thyroid ultrasounds and I learned to identify some of the major things when looking for thyroid cancer or when looking at someone who has hypo or hyperthyroidism. I learned so much from both her and Dr. Schweiger.”

Franco also participated in Cedar-Sinai’s Pre-Med Student Volunteer Program overseen by Jason S. Cohen, MD, which focused on radiation oncology where she learned from radiation therapists and worked with cancer patients. From these two experiences, Franco formed a major takeaway. “Doctors don’t just fix the body. You deal a lot with the mental and spiritual aspects too,” she said. “You have to be careful with how you word things. You are talking to a person who might be at a very low point in their life. So you need to be sensitive while also making sure they’re educated on what’s going on in their body.” Franco recalled the most memorable part of the program, witnessing the emotional moment when a patient was able to ring the bell, symbolizing that they finished their treatment. “It was amazing to hear that bell.”

Franco’s passion for medicine and science began at a young age. “I’ve always had this love for science, the complexity of it,” she said. After graduating from high school in South Central Los Angeles, she wanted to attend a university where she could embrace both her faith and love for science. When she visited APU, she knew it was the right place for her. “Everybody was just so friendly,” she said. “The classes here are small and all of the professors genuinely care about us and want to help us succeed.”

Franco experienced the dedication of APU faculty during her freshman year when she had to withdraw from a chemistry course. “I didn’t have a strong foundation in chemistry. I just couldn’t understand what was going on in class,” she said. Franco took a level 100 chemistry class to get the basics, then retook the course she had dropped. “My professor, Elijah Roth, helped me so much. He was very passionate about not just our academic learning, but our mental and spiritual well being. He pushed me toward a journey of self discovery.”

Franco’s studies extend beyond the classroom. She has worked on a research team with Sarah Richart, PhD, professor in the Department of Biology and Chemistry, for the past two years, most recently studying the effects of fungi on termites. Franco said Richart has taught her about independence in research. “She gives you a general idea of where you’re going and wants you to explore it yourself. If you mess up, it’s not a mistake, it’s a learning opportunity,” Franco said. “You have to come up with these questions and figure out how to solve them, and then more questions arise. That’s the whole point of research, so I’m glad for how she’s helped me grow as a researcher.”

Franco has also experienced growth in her faith during her time at APU. “You can see God’s attributes through creation,” she said. “I’m literally studying creation because biology is the study of life. I feel like I’m getting to know God better through what I’m learning in my biology classes and research.”

Nathan Foster ('20) is the public relations manager in the Division of Strategic Communication and Engagement.