Manuel Morales, a PhD student in the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology, takes a different approach when traveling to MIT.
As a high school student in Orlando, Florida, Morales admired the Navy, inspired by ideas of dedication and sacrifice to the nation and family depicted in old war films he saw at the cinema with his mother, Maria. Morales entered the Navy right after graduating from high school and left his hometown for a life at sea.
Looking back, he says there were a few moments in his naval training that put him on course for MIT. In the boot camp, trainees who achieved perfect marks on the naval training exam were allowed to make an hour-long phone call home – a priceless price for Morales. He studied angrily and was surprised to find that he was enjoying it. Later, after getting an average score on a professional qualification test, he was assigned to a shabby shelter as an electrical engineer. He couldn’t help but notice that the top scorers were being offered hotel-style digs. “I was very salty!” he says with a laugh.
Morales was determined to beat that average test score, and that competitive spark fueled his growing academic talent. Some of his electrical engineering courses were considered more challenging and prestigious, and in those courses, he recalls, “I made it my goal to be better than everyone else and then I realized, ‘Oh, I really like this Stuff! Not only do I like it, I’m good at it. ‘ And that just became the overall trend. ”When he left the apprenticeship, he was top of the class.
Find the right track
Morales was the USS Kauffman, a frigate in Norfolk, Virginia. Typically, the engineering department on board US ships oversees all aspects of the engineering plan at sea, from power supply to propulsion to life support systems. Morales quickly achieved all of the skills and qualifications possible in his department. Sometimes that meant developing your math skills for some of the more challenging executive positions in the engineering department. Crucially, Morales was increasingly motivated by his own curiosity.
“I started taking college classes when I was still on the ship. Some were online … but it wasn’t really online then, ”he says with a smile. “On the ship, you couldn’t really do the lessons ‘online’ because of course we didn’t have the internet. Some of them had to be taught by yourself and tested by a supervisor and your responses sent by “helicopter” mail. That’s how I learned arithmetic! I took Calc I and II like this. It was very difficult, but luckily I had time to travel long distances in a ship. ”Morales became the youngest engineer officer of all time.
Even so, during his long nights as head of the department, Morales realized that he might not be on the right track in the Navy. To pursue his growing interest in the basics of math and physics, Morales enrolled at a community college in Florida – and never looked back.
The next big turning point on his academic path came in the form of two professors who each tossed gauntlets. His physics professor at Community College was known for failing his students; Unsurprisingly, Morales took up the challenge. In fact, it was clear to him that he wanted to study physics instead of electrical engineering. “I thought I had nothing to do with physics. Back then I was thinking about engineering, just doing something, and for me physics was really thinking about the nature of the universe, how it actually works, how things are, ”he says.
Morales graduated from the University of Central Florida with a degree in physics, where he enjoyed the academic experience he had missed while serving in the Navy. In his classic mechanics studies, he met Richard Klemm, a notoriously unfriendly professor who inspired him to double work. After a perfect result in the final exam, Klemm contacted Morales and encouraged him to apply to the graduate school. Morales got into Klemm’s lab after just three semesters from college, studying quantum mechanics.
Considering a PhD was a wake-up call for Morales. “I still wanted to do physics, but at that point I realized that it wouldn’t always be so easy to catch up!” Then he discovered medical physics, the application of physical principles to the development of medical technology. The HST graduate program at MIT seemed like a natural complement.
At home and where the heart research is
Morales is currently completing his PhD at the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, in the Charleston branch of Massachusetts General Hospital. There he runs his laboratory’s diagnostic imaging pipeline, from patient recruitment to scanning, and uses machine learning approaches to improve the diagnostic capabilities of MRIs – especially for detecting heart disease in young patients.
“I’ve been able to develop some methods that can look at these images, and in addition to the tools I already have, they can actually look at the heart’s movement to see if there is any dysfunction in them despite some patients.” Being pretty young, “explains Morales.
His success in graduate school did not tarnish his ambitions; he will start work in a “very tough” postdoctoral lab in the Boston area in July. But shortly before the end of his MIT career, he took the time to think about his time in the HST program. “If I just think back to all the friendships I made in the first year and the experiences I had, it was just fantastic, even if it was a little difficult,” he says. This camaraderie helped him and his colleagues get through the program together, including medical classes – new territory for Morales. “I think HST itself is doing a really good job of setting you up to be successful and having all of the resources you need.”
Morales has also made two best friends through the HST program, Ang Cui and John Samuelsson, who are graduating from him. Together they achieved so many milestones, from course exams to final exams, that the trio gave themselves a name: the Winners Club. In addition to the academics, they also share a common interest in exploring the greater Boston and New England areas, including hiking and rock climbing.
Morales says he and his wife Paola fell in love with the region. They visit Vermont every Christmas time and like to take their visitors on long walks through Boston with their Welsh Terrier. But it’s also the academic hustle and bustle of Cambridge that captivated Morales.
“One of the things I love is just being able to go to a coffee shop and at one point just find everyone working on a problem or talking about an interesting topic. It’s not uncommon for people to read, work on papers, work on their laptops, or have a business meeting. There is always an interesting interaction at some point. And it’s motivating to work in such an environment. “