Future physician-scientist fascinated by the brain and neurosurgery

Phil Walker, a first-year medical student at the Boonshoft School of Medicine, is pursuing an M.D./Ph.D. dual degree. (Photo by Will Jones)

Phil Walker, a first-year medical student at the Boonshoft School of Medicine, is pursuing an M.D./Ph.D. dual degree. (Photo by Will Jones)

Phil Walker’s journey to medical school began when he was 7 years old. His parents found him on the front porch operating on his pet goldfish with a butter knife. He explained to them that he was preparing for his life as a surgeon.

“Rather than simply scolding me for my ridiculous logic and regrettable behavior, they helped me embrace my curiosity,” he said. “Namely, they kept me on a healthy diet of books related to medicine and science. One of those books introduced me to the field of neurosurgery.”

Ultimately, that book led him to the Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine, where he is a first-year medical student pursuing an M.D./Ph.D. dual degree.

“The opportunity to participate in an M.D./Ph.D. program is something I’ve dreamt about. While the seven years it will take to complete the program may sound daunting to others, I don’t view it as such,” said Walker, who is president of the class of 2020. “I treat it as an investment in the care of my future patients and those who will be impacted by my research. I love learning and, especially where I am from, having the option of being a full-time student is a privilege.”

Walker is a recipient of two Boonshoft School of Medicine scholarships. He is very appreciative of those scholarships.

“These scholarships have lessened some of the financial burden that pursuing M.D. and Ph.D. degrees puts on me and my family,” he said. “For that backing and support, I am truly grateful for those who contribute to our institution’s scholarships.”

Growing up in the Philadelphia and South Jersey area taught him hustle, grit and mental toughness. When he was an infant, his uncle was shot and killed. After watching emergency medical technicians desperately attempting to save his uncle’s life, Walker’s father decided to become an emergency medical technician. With years of hard work, Walker’s father continually progressed in the field of medicine and is now a registered cardiovascular invasive specialist.

In addition to his father, he credits his mother with playing a role in his decision to go into the field of neurology. When he was 15 years old, she had stroke-like symptoms. Her doctors diagnosed her with a neurological disorder that is triggered by stressful situations. His mother eventually improved somewhat, but she was not able to return to work.

“It was emotional and traumatic,” Walker said. “I turned to science for answers to my questions about her illness.”

Walker’s parents encouraged him to continue to explore his interest in medicine and science. So when Walker received a scholarship to play basketball at Solebury School, a private school in New Hope, Pennsylvania, his parents urged him to attend. Attending Solebury School was one of the best things that ever happened to him. He was pushed academically and placed into AP-level courses.

“Solebury School is where I learned good study habits,” he said. “I started to understand that everything I was doing in school was preparing me for my future.”

He balanced academics and athletics, despite suffering from a torn ACL and undergoing reconstructive surgery when he played basketball at Solebury School. Unfortunately, the bandaging around his wound from the ACL surgery was wrapped too tightly, resulting in stasis and the formation of blood clots.

“Thanks to a team of talented doctors and nurses and medication, I survived and was able to continue to play basketball during college,” he said.

However, when he tore his ACL, some of the Division I college coaches who had been talking with him stopped calling. “They only saw me as a basketball player,” he said. “They did not see me as a student committed to my academics.”

Frustrated, Walker decided to turn down Division I scholarship offers and attend Ursinus College, a Division III university, located in suburban Philadelphia. He was able to both play basketball and pursue his academic studies. He met his future wife, Annie Hudson, at Ursinus. Walker and Hudson transferred together to Morehouse College and Spelman College in Atlanta. Walker joined the basketball team at Morehouse and played there for a year. He also was an active member in several organizations, including Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. and Omicron Delta Kappa, a leadership honor society. He represented Morehouse at the honor society’s national convention in 2014.

During his freshman and sophomore summer breaks, he was an intern with the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) Summer Internship Program in Bethesda, Maryland. Because of his mother’s illness, the internship appealed to him. The NINDS is part of the National Institutes of Health. He shadowed a physician-scientist and watched him perform several different neurological procedures.

“Surgeries can sometimes take eight hours. I just stood there like a six-foot, six-inch fly on the wall and watched, fascinated by the brain and neurosurgery,” Walker said. “The brain is the most fascinating thing I have seen.”

When he returned to Morehouse his junior year, he decided to stop playing basketball. “I miss it every day,” said Walker, who continues to play pickup games of basketball with his fellow medical students. “It was fun, and I was good at it. But I knew that this was a sacrifice that I would need to make if I wanted to accomplish some of my career goals.”

While the first year of medical school is challenging, Walker is enjoying his classes. He also is enjoying getting to know his classmates.

“These are some of the most brilliant, selfless and kind people that I have ever met,” he said. “They are fun people to be around, which makes the stress of medical school much more tolerable than I anticipated.”

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