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Dr. Zulma Rueda headshot.

Dr. Zulma Rueda, 2023 recipient of the Terry G. Falconer Memorial Rh Institute Foundation Emerging Researcher Award in the Health Sciences category.

Meet Zulma Rueda, 2023 Rh Award Winner in the Health Sciences category

May 24, 2024 — 

Dr. Zulma Rueda is an associate professor in the department of medical microbiology and infectious diseases and a Canada Research Chair in sexually transmitted infection – resistance and control. She focuses her research on epidemiology and infectious diseases, including tuberculosis, HIV and pneumonia.

Rueda is the 2023 recipient of the Terry G. Falconer Memorial Rh Institute Foundation Emerging Researcher Award in the Health Sciences category, in recognition of her innovative work on the syndemics of infectious diseases and her contributions to improving public health through evidence-based policy changes.

UM Today caught up with Rueda to learn more about her and the research she is undertaking.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your research.

I’m originally from Colombia, where I studied medicine and earned a PhD in epidemiology. My research focuses on four main areas: pneumonia, tuberculosis, HIV and sexually transmitted and blood-borne infections.

I work primarily with marginalized populations to understand the epidemiology and co-infections of these diseases. My lab, the Exposome Lab, and the AllTogether4IDEAS team, study all the exposures that affect health, both genetic and environmental, and how these interact to create negative health outcomes.

I’m also passionate about diagnostics and ensuring quick and accurate diagnoses to improve treatment outcomes. I believe in translating research into action by advocating for policy changes to improve public health.

Why is this research important?

Our research in Manitoba on HIV and sexually transmitted infections revealed a unique epidemiology compared to the rest of Canada. Nationally, new HIV diagnoses are predominantly reported among gay, bisexual and men who have sex with men, with two-thirds of cases in males and less than 20 per cent among people who inject drugs.

In contrast, Manitoba sees a different pattern: half of the newly diagnosed HIV cases are females, with a significant overrepresentation of people who inject drugs and those experiencing houselessness. This research sheds light on these intersecting conditions, such as sex, houselessness, injection drug use and mental health issues, that disproportionately impact these populations.

By understanding these unique epidemiological patterns, we can develop targeted interventions and support systems to improve health outcomes for those most affected in Manitoba.

What does winning the Rh Award mean to you?

Receiving the Rh Award was an emotional experience for me. It represents recognition of the incredible teamwork behind my research. It’s also a personal boost as a first-generation immigrant facing many challenges.

This award acknowledges the support of my family, mentors and colleagues who have guided me. It carries a responsibility to continue leading by example and advancing our work to improve public health.

What do you hope to achieve in the future?

I aim to expand our network of researchers and collaborators, including those with lived experiences. My ultimate goal is to generate evidence that transforms the lives of the populations we study.

Advocacy remains a key component of our work, ensuring that research findings are used to drive meaningful change. Additionally, I’m committed to maintaining a healthy work-life balance, recognizing that success is subjective and individualized.

What about you might people find surprising?

I live life to the fullest, valuing the present and embracing activities that bring joy, like dancing to salsa music, enjoying wine and coffee, traveling and spending time with loved ones.

Any advice for early-career researchers and students?

Be open-minded, flexible, humble and collaborative. Each person must find their own work-life balance. Follow your dreams and instincts, no matter how challenging.

I remember a professor telling me I couldn’t conduct research in Colombian prisons because I was too young and a woman. But I persisted, and that research changed my life. Listening to and collaborating with people who have lived experiences has been invaluable.

Research at the University of Manitoba is partially supported by funding from the Government of Canada Research Support Fund.

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