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Pre Med Major Graduates Code School with Plans to Change Public Health as We Know It

Gaby Dumit

Pre Med Major Graduates Code School with Plans to Change Public Health as We Know It's Image

Max always felt he wanted to go into medicine. He applied himself in math and science at an early age, in part because he was confident that doctors in general held similar interests and values.

 Hack Reactor Alumni, Max Hoffman
Hack Reactor Alumni, Max Hoffman

In addition to studying, Max spent many hours playing hockey and soccer (even commuting from West Virginia to Pittsburgh several times a week in order to participate in a more competitive hockey league. Family rule: if he wanted to play hockey, he had to finish all of his homework first. This, in turn, led him to become rigorously disciplined with his time.

When Max was in high school, his chemistry teacher, noticing his scientific potential, taught him to build fireworks. Max remembers his astonishment even then, at the ability to create something out of nothing, and he notes that the same sense of possibility later drew him to computer programming.

During his last year of high school, Max applied to colleges all across the country but went to Pomona College in southern California, which he was drawn to because of its focus on liberal arts.

In college, Max checked off all the usual pre-med boxes: extensive hours shadowing physicians, tutoring, volunteering, and conducting research. He also spent time as a TA in various courses including organic and physical chemistry. Max was a chemistry and applied math major, and he spent a significant amount of time conducting independent research in both of those areas, writing not one, but two theses. He focused much of his research in biochemistry, purifying proteins and analyzing the structure and function of those proteins. His applied math thesis focused on modeling the physical forces causing asymmetric splitting in C. Elegans.

It was not until after finishing college that Max was introduced to the tech world. Like most students who apply to medical school, Max took a gap year after undergrad in order to strengthen his application. Unlike many students who take jobs in consulting roles or do bench research, however, Max took a part-time job at a manufacturing facility near his family’s home in Wisconsin. This left him with many hours free to explore.

He spent this time learning how to program. In his senior year of college, Max had taken an Intro to Java course and participated in his first Hackathon. However, he always thought programming was out of his reach. Now with more free time, Max decided to take the deep dive into programming and learn about the startup world.

Last summer, Max applied to Hack Reactor as a way to formalize what he had spent the past year learning. Max enjoyed the difficulty of Hack Reactor and the passion of its students. Though he was particularly drawn to Hack Reactor for its rigor, and he loved the breakneck pace, Max made sure to exercise daily to stay relaxed and motivated.

At first, Max, who had already struggled to set up Express servers before beginning at Hack Reactor, was not a huge fan of back-end work. However, after a few weeks in his cohort, he was a “back-end wizard”, even learning Go and Docker in addition to the required back-end technologies.

Since Max knew he was going into medicine, he had free reign to focus on whatever technologies interested him rather than what the market found hot at the moment. He loved React, but he also found himself drawn to DevOps work.

  Blockchain, Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
Blockchain, Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Max was particularly drawn to the powers of Blockchain technologies, which he had never heard about before attending Hack Reactor. He read Satoshi’s original paper, and, from that moment on, he began trying to make his own contributions to the Blockchain space.

For his thesis project, Max, along with his team, used React, MongoDB, Express, a Solidity contract, and various blockchain APIs to create a replacement for social security. Max explained:

“The idea is that a contributor puts money into a pool and those who have contributed the longest can then take out dividends later. The Solidity smart contract allowed automatic distribution, so users did not need to trust money handlers, and identity was handled completely anonymously. We even found a way to verify user age. Genetics has gotten to the point where we can estimate a user’s age within three years, so age fraud can be detected (genetic testing has not been implemented yet, of course).”

Kan Adachi, the head of the Hack Reactor Los Angeles location, helped coach Max through some of the DevOps material that Max chose to dive into (outside of the normal Hack Reactor curriculum). Kan was so impressed that he even wrote a recommendation letter for Max to become a partner at Contrary Capital, a distributed venture capital firm with about 100 highly motivated entrepreneurs in college and graduate school. Contrary Capital’s belief is that college and graduate students are both motivated and undervalued, and hence more likely to start some of the most interesting and influential companies of our time.

Max was described by one of his HIRs, Zach Carr, as a “standout student who took on ambitious work at every chance he got.” Max even tried to solve the N-Queens problem with machine learning (using ConvNetJS).

Max remembers that Zach would ask nondescript questions until Max was able to answer his own questions, which in turn allowed Max to learn the material much better than if Zach or another HIR had just given the answer. Hack Reactor’s style of “learning by doing” gave Max a strong foundation and ability to keep learning on his own.

After Hack Reactor, Max began teaching himself more about machine learning and how to build neural nets. He has already done research in the physics department at Washington University in Saint Louis to categorize neural dynamics.

Currently, Max spends a lot of time doing research and even spends up to 30 hours per week as a partner at Contrary Capital. This is, of course, in addition to the 50-70 hours he spends studying as a medical student.

Like Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, who had more influence than most clinical physicians in all of history through their invention of polio vaccines, Max hopes to have an exponential impact on the world. He believes that technology is the best way to achieve this goal. Whether he succeeds as a surgeon conducting research, or as a machine learning engineer (Max is considering getting a PhD in machine learning), is not yet decided.

When asked if he  has any advice for students about to start Hack Reactor, Max said: 

“The most important thing is to develop a solid framework for how to learn and adapt to new areas, including the ability to teach yourself what you need to know. Primarily, this means one must find the best way to learn in a given context.” 

This ability to learn in efficient ways and be flexible has served him well. 

“If we generalize a bit more, we can solve things that are not just useful but potentially use machine learning in a much more flexible way.”

Max’s future tech goals are tied in with his career goals. He believes that the development and generalization of machine learning will have a huge impact on the world. He hopes to see machine learning become applied more generally in order to see exponential progress in science. Right now, many scientists spend their time focused on a single-minded problem: 

“If we want medicine and science to be more generalizable, we need mass generalization and mass data analysis that only machine learning can do.”
In the current era, we have a real opportunity to conceive of something historically new — a human-centric engineering discipline. - Michael Jordan


Before the end of our interview, Max referenced an article by Michael Jordan (the Professor, not the basketball player). The takeaway from that article was that AI could lead to a whole new academic discipline, a human-centric engineering that allows us to make exponential progress towards our goals and a better society. Max wants to be a part of this new discipline and use advances in technology to revolutionize public health.

It sounds like Max is putting his Hack Reactor skills to good use.

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