Topics Student Life
Date September 7, 2021
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Alejandro Jackson: A compassionate approach to science and biotechnology

A first-year student beginning Brown’s distinctive eight-year Program in Liberal Medical Education, Alejandro Jackson aspires to become an M.D./Ph.D. who develops new technologies for amputees to improve quality of life.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Alejandro Jackson had always loved the physical sciences — engineering, robotics, mathematics and computers. Then during the summer of 2019, the Miami, Florida, native encountered a logic problem that brought his academic interests to life, almost literally.

As part of a high school internship at the Adaptive Neural Systems laboratory at Florida International University, Jackson and a team of fellow students were challenged to code and create a robotic hand with fingers that could move independently. He enjoyed the experience so much that he returned the lab — which develops technology to offset the effects of limb amputation, orthopedic injury and disease — the following summer.

This time, he had the opportunity to hear from real-life people who’d had amputations talking about what they needed from a prosthetic. The gears in Jackson’s brain whirred as he processed conversations about the difficulties presented by something as mundane as a water bottle: the round shape and fragile plastic made them too easy to accidentally crush with a standard prosthetic arm and hand.

“I started thinking about how sensory feedback and virtual reality training could be used to improve prosthetics,” Jackson said. “I became really interested in how I could use my skills to improve quality of life for people who’d had amputations.”

The experience inspired Jackson to seek an undergraduate program where he could study biomedical engineering with the ultimate goal of becoming an M.D./Ph.D. physician-engineer. And he already knew where he could expand his skills and create new connections: Brown University, where he’d wanted to go since he was 8 years old. It was then that Jackson’s mother, a Brown alumna, brought him along to her 20th class reunion celebration.

“I always say that two things attracted me to Brown: the blueberry muffins at the Blue Room and meeting my mom’s friends,” Jackson said with a laugh, recalling his trip as an 8-year-old. “The muffins are really great, and my mom’s friends from Brown are just super upstanding people. The biggest thing I noticed, then as well as now, is that they are compassionate — always willing to listen to someone no matter where they are from.”

Brown’s distinctive Program in Liberal Medical Education (PLME), in which students earn both a Brown bachelor’s degree and an M.D. from Warren Alpert Medical School in an eight-year program, was the perfect fit for Jackson. His mother, Dr. Agueda Hernandez, who practiced as a family physician and now works in medical administration, was also a graduate of Brown's PLME program.

“I was always very focused on Brown, and then as I learned more about PLME, the freedom of that particular program really appealed to me,” he said.

While Jackson’s long-term goal is to run his own lab, he’s now at work as a first-year Brown student building an independent undergraduate concentration in bio-robotics. Jackson said that in his first semester on College Hill, he’s excited to take a biomed elective in tissue engineering as well as classes in computer science and digital game development. As a guitarist, he is also hoping to take classes on music theory and explore music therapy. Jackson expects his own compassion to inform his scientific endeavors.

“I would like to learn from people’s experiences and apply that to my work, which will hopefully involve developing new technologies for amputees to improve quality of life,” he said.

In recalling his mother’s classmates at the reunion event, Jackson noted something else that made an impression: “They introduced unique perspectives that you don’t often hear, which led to conversations I remembered for years afterwards. It’s those kinds of conversations that help you grow.”

As he kicks off eight years of study at Brown when classes begin this week, Jackson has already started having his own memorable conversations with students. He connected online with PLME classmates before arriving on campus and participated in the Third World Transition Program, an Orientation program that welcomes new students to Brown with workshops and community-building programs that center the experience of students of color. Jackson, who identifies as Afro-Cuban and African American, said the program helped him feel at home.

“Already, I’ve met such incredible people here at Brown,” he said. “I really feel like I’ve made the right choice.”