This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jameson: Max, welcome! Thanks for agreeing to talk with us! Here at WeAreHBCUs, we love to tell the stories of people in our community who have attended our institutions and are doing some pretty incredible things. So let's dive right in, shall we? Tell us a bit about your story.
Max: So I was born and raised in Cameroon. I grew up there speaking French and then moved here to go to college. My dad's older brother has been in the DC area since the early eighties. My parents wanted me to have greater educational opportunities. For many people back home, if you have a family member abroad, it's an opportunity to seek a greater future because we're a poor country. It can sometimes feel like the future is very uncertain.
So anyway, that's why my parents sent me here. My first semester in DC was taking an English as a second language course because I wasn't totally non-English speaking, but I needed to get up to the college level. So I did that first semester, took the TOEFL, and then went to Howard. And my first semester, I think officially I was a math major. But my dad always was interested in me becoming a civil engineer cause he was like, we're A developing country, we're poor, like we need roads, so you should study something that'll give you a really high demand skill set, like civil engineering.
In my junior year of college, ABET started making biological sciences a graduation requirement for civil engineering. So I took Bio 101, and I remember loving it. And I was like, "Okay, I need to find a way out of civil engineering and do things related to biological sciences cause this actually excites me." That's when I started applying to mechanical engineering and bioengineering programs. I applied to these programs and talked to labs where they basically applied solid material type stuff to biological or biomechanical systems.
I got into grad school and ended up going to Georgia Tech. While there, I wasn't really loving what I was doing. I also had this mild interest in pursuing an MD-Ph.D. My PI was an MD-Ph.D., so he generally supported the idea. I ultimately decided I wanted to go to medical school. It seemed easier to do that than continue the Ph.D., apply to med school, and try to change into the MD-Ph.D. program. After grad school, I had a small summer job teaching science to high schoolers from Bankhead. And then, I got this job at Vanderbilt, so I moved to Nashville for about a year to be a research engineer. And then went to Yale, and now I'm doing my residency in Boston.
Jameson: That's great, man. I want to back up. Can you talk more about why you chose Howard? I know you came to the states pretty young, and you had, I'm sure, a lot of things on the horizon, but what made you choose Howard?
Max: Good question. So my uncle went to Howard for grad school. He was a grad student in the same engineering building that I was in. He knew some of my professors. His wife went to Howard for law school. Her best friend went to Howard for undergrad and law school. So when I moved here, my uncle decided that I would go to this language program at Howard. So that's how I started there. And he was like, you're like a young, Black, impressionable kid. I think you need to have your foundation in how to be Black in America at an HBCU, like a protective foundation. So that was his rationale. And then he said, you can go elsewhere if you don't like it after one year. I got there, and I had a good ass time and didn't want to leave.
Jameson: That was great. Shout out to your uncle for planting that seed early. You've touched on some of the work you did in grad school. You've been publishing papers over the years. How did you get interested in research in the first place?
Max: First of all, being a curious person is key. "How does this work?" And "why?" are the two questions I like to ask about nearly everything. So my DC water internship was like mini research. Basically, DC water was like trialing this product that they would dump into the sewer upstream. We would then collect sewage samples along the sewage pipeline and test levels of hydrogen and sulfide.
So that was my first foray into research. Some of the classes you take in engineering require a knack for research. Many of the courses we take have a bit of a research component. I think the combination of having had that summer experience and then being in the lab and like being excited when I saw my thing of concrete like finally breaking after X load or seeing the steel elongate itself set me down this path. I'm curious about the world.
David: As a medical student, you started a podcast, "Flip the Script," to focus on ways race and racism have shaped the medical field for centuries. Where did that come from? How did you get started with that?
Max: So, in med school, I often listened to podcasts. NPR Code Switch was my go-to. I've been listening to Code Switch literally since 2016, when it became a thing. I always thought podcasts to be quite an accessible approach to learning about otherwise somewhat complicated topics. I learned so much about the social science behind racism and whatnot by listening to Code Switch. In my first year of med school, I was getting into many arguments about racism and how it affects health and racial health disparity. And it was a little tiring.
And my academic advisor, Marcella Nunez -Smith, was like, "look, you are going to tire out if you keep arguing with these people about this stuff. If you're gonna do this, make it scholarship, make it productive, and you can refer them to what you've produced." When she said, "make it scholarship," I was like, huh, great point. But I also cannot write about everything. I'm not an expert at everything. Can I pick up a subject, read a couple of papers, and then write an op-ed about said subject? Yes. Do I want to? No. There are people out there who hold the expertise already. So why don't I instead create what Code Switch is doing?
Jameson: I love that. We're gonna get a little bit more back on HBCUs and our institutions here. Your alma mater, Howard, was recently awarded a $90 million research contract with the Department of Defense. Seeing as you've got this critical lens on issues both at a 30,000 foot level and also on a micro level, what do you think the impact of this kind of contract is, especially as it pertains to the landscape of HBCUs amongst this greater push for research funding and funding in general?
Max: The Department of Defense spends a lot of money on research, and a lot of it goes to big tech schools. So from a pure sort of utilitarian perspective, I say great for Howard. Howard will now be the first HBCU to have a big defense research center. I'm thrilled that Howard is getting $90 million. It will benefit people who want to do work along that path. I think it'll probably also attract people from other HBCUs to maybe come up and do summer projects. The thing that interests me specifically is that there's some amount of medical innovation that the DoD does fund.
On the other hand, the Howard that I went to is the school of Stokley Carmichael. I went to the school of Thurgood Marshall. I went to the School of Toni Morrison. How would they feel about this? I think it's a different story. Howard students have a history of protesting our administration. People protested on Howard's campus so much it shut the A building down many times, since the eighties. So I'm sure that there are dissenting voices on campus that feel the way Stokley Carmichael would have about this gift.
David: I think we've all had that eye-opening experience once we all went to our HBCUs, where we began understanding their diversity. Could you talk more about your experience at your HBCU, with your unique background coming from Cameroon and then stepping into Black space in America?
Max: You know what's funny? The diversity on Howard campus could take you by surprise when you first show up, but it's so true. When Obama gave the commencement speech a couple years after I graduated from Howard, he told the graduates something along the lines of, "now you've graduated from Howard, I'm sure, before you came here, you didn't know there were Black people from Iowa. You didn't know there were black people from Nebraska. You didn't know you would go to school with people from Sri Lanka." So it was very diverse indeed, beyond what many people would expect, like outside of Howard. I also think there is lots of class diversity, right? There was the full spectrum of the black experience from class, nationality, culture, what have you.
Jameson: So the last thing we have are some rapid-fire questions. Just say whatever comes to mind first. Alright. So, Max, what are you most looking forward to this year?
Max: Ooh, I just got tickets to see Beyonce, so there you go. I'm very much looking forward to my class' 10-year reunion at Homecoming too!
David: Finish this sentence, "in five years, I hope to be...?"
Max: In five years, I hope to be an assistant professor at somebody's medical school.
Jameson: Something I wish I knew in my early twenties is?
Max: Learn to enjoy running. Running is fun.
David: What is one thing you wish you took more time to appreciate?
Max: Just the little things. The little things. Sometimes slow down, as they say.
David: What's the best piece of advice you've ever received?
Max: Always ask for help. I think it's universally applicable. Ask for help. Put your ego aside and ask for help.
Jameson: Where can people learn more about you and some of the work you've done and are going to do?
Max: Yeah. I'm on Twitter at @MaxJordan_N. I'm on Instagram @game.set.max. My site is maxjordanwrites.com. And the podcast will come back soon! The handle for the podcast on Twitter is @flipscriptpod.