Alula Hunsen ’21, still remembers the moment his academic trajectory at MIT changed. He was taking the final exam for a differential equations class at the end of his first year, furiously working through problem after problem, when he had a realization. “It was a really hard exam, but I was really enjoying myself,” he recalls. “I was just so confused as to what was happening because I had never engaged with anything in that way.”
Hunsen arrived at MIT with a plan to major in bioengineering, a choice that felt obvious having grown up with parents who were organic chemists, and after having enjoyed advanced biology in high school. “I felt like that was the area where I could best succeed,” he explains.
However, Hunsen, who is supported by a scholarship from the Thomas A. Pappas Charitable Foundation, found himself struggling to connect with the content in his introductory biology and chemistry classes at MIT. “I understood what was happening, but I didn’t understand how we build up to the level at which they were teaching the subject, so I felt really detached from the material,” he says.
In Hunsen’s introductory math class, however, he was immediately attracted to the stepwise manner in which the material built from established principles to interesting abstractions. “I found myself being challenged in a way that I really appreciated,” he recalls.
Still, Hunsen felt intimidated by the prospect of switching his major to math—that is, until the next semester when he took a differential equations class with Bjorn Poonen, the Claude Shannon Professor of Mathematics, whom Hunsen describes as a math legend. By the time finals rolled around that spring, Hunsen was sold. “I got over my fear of math by realizing that I could take it a step at a time, and that I didn’t need to do that major in any way but the way that I wanted to do it,” he explains. “I kind of removed the artificial pressure I put on myself and just went for it.”
Now Hunsen is considering another adjustment to his trajectory: a double major in math and economics, which would allow him to continue engaging with the aspects of math he likes, while also applying math to real-world situations. “I enjoy the abstractness of math, but economics has given me a framework for understanding what’s going on in the world around me. I can immediately see what I would do with an economics degree,” Hunsen says. After MIT, Hunsen envisions pursuing economics in an academic or a government policy setting.
Hunsen’s desire to understand topics from the ground up also extends to articles he writes for MIT’s student-run magazine Infinite. A recent story explored the relationship between music and fashion: “I wanted to build the history and the background of how black music has influenced streetwear, and how that has existed for the length of streetwear and black music’s existence,” Hunsen says. He has also published opinion pieces about social justice issues such as prison reform in the Tech.
In his free time, Hunsen can often be found falling into deep reading rabbit holes online. “It’s fairly random—I follow a bunch of news media sites on social media, and whatever they post, I’ll follow that to the article and fall into a hole from there,” he says. For example, Hunsen recently parsed Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations” in the Atlantic, using the article’s citations to find books and papers on sociology and African-American studies.
What motivates Hunsen to keep exploring new paths? “On some level it’s just as simple as doing what I like to do and knowing that I’m going to be able to continue doing it even more.”