Alex Benjamin has taken the art of asking the right question to a higher level, quite literally. He learned how to reduce a complex inquiry down to its simplest form while he was an undergraduate at Drexel, earning his BS/MS in Mechanical Engineering. Now, he is applying that knowledge to the subject of computational mathematics, a discipline so knotty that some of the questions asked might never have an answer.
Alex, ’15, is pursuing his PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and estimates he will finish his degree within three years. He was awarded an MS in Applied Mathematics in 2017. Currently, he bends his research talents to the advancement of ultrasound technology.
“You’ve seen the fetal imaging, for instance? What I’m doing now is approaching it from more of a computational standpoint,” says Alex, who minored in mathematics at Drexel. “What I’m trying to answer is, how can I make use of applied math to answer certain diagnostic problems that exist today? Is it possible to use ultrasound to do more than imaging: can we diagnose fatty liver, or can we reconstruct images of fractured bones?
“These are problems that exist in the medical community, but the solutions for which are inherently computational. We are answering these questions from a math standpoint with the hope that, someday, they actually make it into the practice.”
Alex allows that he is not a fan of classroom learning. Like so many engineers, his approach is typically to learn by application and to find a solution by working through a problem or a design. There is a place for that modus operandi, he says. But it is the questions-first philosophy that has allowed him to deepen and expand his learning in new directions.
Together with his twin brother, Rishon Benjamin, who got his BS in Chemical Engineering at Drexel (globally, one of only a handful of twins matriculating at the same time, in the same program, with the same degree), Alex grew up in Warminster, PA. He likes his Cambridge, MA neighborhood at MIT just fine. But he misses Sam’s Food Truck on Drexel’s campus
“Up here, the rent is unaffordable and there are no food trucks,” he says. “Every time I’m in Philly, that’s my first stop.”
Alex credits his co-op experience at Drexel with teaching him what he does not want to do in his professional life as much as what he does. He enjoyed a co-op at Merck, a research co-op on alternative energies in the Electrochemical Energy Systems Lab at Drexel, and a third position at Danaher Corporation, the dental imaging company, here in Philadelphia.
But those three job experiences made a couple of things crystal clear. Among them, that he did not want a 9-to-5 job, and that he is most comfortable working as his own boss. Weekend and nighttime hours are fine for Alex, so long as he is at the controls. Perhaps a startup is in his future, as well. The highest value of the co-op, he says, is that it can clarify career possibilities. An undergraduate’s life should be spent exploring every option and adapting accordingly and enthusiastically.
“Everybody’s going to be successful eventually, but you have to get the right fit. Don’t make up your mind too fast,” Alex advises. “Especially with people like engineers who are extremely driven, you have to understand the times you are in and make decisions for yourself that will make you relevant in 15, 20 years. I mean, if I had to take a bet on what industry will dominate industry in 10 years, I would guess artificial intelligence. Any student who gets into that field now is positioning him or herself extremely well.”
Following questions that the tech culture is starting to broadly ask about its most startling advances, Alex constantly addresses the issue of ethics in his work. The acceleration of technologies that can improve our lives but also open us up to exploitation weigh on him as he considers the future. He applauds his parents with raising him and his brother to contribute to the world, rather than to pursue progress for individual gain or enrichment alone.
“Technology makes us better, but it’s up to us to bring a certain amount of conscience to it,” Alex concludes. “If you have a desire to make a device that can diagnose tuberculosis in 30 seconds, that probably comes from knowing that there are people out there who should not be dying from TB. Technology opens the blinds.
“But the humanity and the compassion,” he says, “that comes individually. That burden is on every individual.”
--By Wendy Plump, Staff Writer