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MU medical student finishes MIT doctorate

Jul. 09, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

HUNTINGTON -- When Alex Slocum moved to Huntington with his future wife in the summer of 2011 to prepare for medical school at Marshall University, he thought he would take a four-year break from the Ph.D. program he had started in 2010 at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He already earned both his bachelor's and master's degrees from MIT when he started work on his doctoral degree. The mechanical engineer, who wanted to attend medical school, said his dissertation proposal on why knee joint replacements weren't lasting very long or outright failing could truly only be defended by him having a complete understanding of the human anatomy.

Now 26 and a third-year medical student, Slocum said he thought he would shelf his dissertation for four years. But he said the project gnawed at him. His wife, Sarah, a Charleston native whom he met at MIT and then joined for medical school, would go to bed about 9 p.m., while he would stay up till midnight or 1 a.m. working on his dissertation while coordinating with two undergraduates back at MIT who were helping conduct experiments.

As his first three semesters of medical school went by, Slocum said he became very thankful that he didn't shelf it, noting the support from several faculty members and the wealth of medical knowledge that enhanced his dissertation and helped him graduate in February 2013.

He said his 244-page dissertation would have merely contained abstract thinking from an engineer's perspective on the human anatomy. Instead, it contained two chapters dedicated to helping mechanical and biological engineers understand the human body in a way that can help them build better life-improving or saving devices.

"I owe a big chunk of this thing to Marshall," he said.

Slocum grew up in a New Hampshire town he described as similar to Huntington -- with a river and about 30,000 people. He wasn't a whiz kid who was courted by MIT, but a decent student who learned at an early age how to think for himself and use his hands.

"If I asked my parents why the sky was blue, they would have handed me a book on the atmosphere," he said. "It would drive me crazy, but I learned to find things on my own."

He also credited his parents with instilling in him a creative instinct. His mother taught him how to sew and stitch, while his father taught him wood working. Slocum said in his early teen years, he had become interested in weight lifting and asked his father to purchase a squat rack. But his dad suggested they build one out of wood, and they did.

Then, for his Eagle Scout project, Slocum built a 10-foot-span wooden bridge designed to handle the weight of a truck.

And it was those things that he said weighed more heavily than academics in getting into MIT.

"MIT doesn't care about As and Bs," Slocum said. "They want to see you have passion for something that will keep you up at night."

Even as he started his first semester, Slocum said being a medical doctor was something he was very interested in. But his impatience got in the way. He said his love of working with his hands and the ability to get involved in projects rather quickly at MIT won him over.

But he still wanted to be able to complete his pre-med requirements before finishing his master's degree. The hardest turned out to be organic chemistry. Slocum said he passed, but that the class "kicked his butt."

During his years in graduate school, Slocum described several experiences that would play integral roles in him landing in Huntington. One, and perhaps the most relevant, is meeting his wife in organic chemistry II.

Another was his longtime family friend and adviser telling him he needed to find another adviser who could provide fresh perspective.

"He cut me loose and made me tread water on my own," Slocum said.

The third was a fellowship in medical engineering in Boston at an institution that brought in scientists, engineers and physicians to work on innovations in the medical field.

In the year leading up to their graduation, Slocum said he decided to take the MCAT (the medical school entrance exam) with his girlfriend, knowing that medical school had been on his backburner.

She applied to several schools, including Marshall and West Virginia University. During her interview at Marshall, she texted Slocum to tell him how amazing the atmosphere and people were, leading him to submit his own application.

He told them about his connection to Sarah, along with his plans to propose a few months later during their trip to Scotland.

He also told them about being a doctoral student at MIT, which he said officials welcomed. That wasn't always the case, as some schools returned his application because he was a Ph.D. candidate at another institution.

Currently, Marshall's medical school is working to revitalize the research-focused, dual (M.D./Ph.D.) program, which has existed since 1992, but only operated on an ad hoc basis as students expressed interest. Last summer, when Dr. Joseph Shapiro took over as dean, he and a few others renewed a revised seven-year program that culminates with students graduating with both degrees.

Though he still has two years and a residency to go, Slocum said it is very clear which kind of doctor he will be.

"My primary goal is to be a physician," Slocum said, joking that engineering is a better hobby to have that treating patients in his basement.

If he had to choose a field now, it would likely be orthopedics because it goes along with the doctoral work he did on knee joint replacements. But, as his clerkships in a number of fields begin later this month, Slocum said he'll approach each with an attitude that this is what he's most interested in. Only then, he said, will he know for sure what area to specialize in.

"I think of myself as a physician in training with a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering," he said. "I want to use the Ph.D. to improve patient care."

Alex Slocum Jr.

AGE: 26

HOMETOWN: Slocum is a native of New Hampshire, but just finished his second year at the Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine.

FAMILY: He met his wife, Sarah, while taking organic chemistry II at MIT. She is a native of Charleston and also a student at the medical school.

OTHER EDUCATION: In February, he graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology with his doctorate. in mechanical engineering.