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Driven to learn

Christopher Walden earns Ph.D., starts medical school three days later

Christopher Walden
Christopher Walden earned his Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology at UND’s Summer Commencement on Friday, Aug. 4, and started medical school on the following Monday. Photo by Shawna Schill.

Christopher Walden is one of the few new medical students who can already call himself “Doctor.”

He earned his Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology at Commencement on Friday, Aug. 4, and started medical school on Monday.

Walden was one of 79 new medical students – four of whom have doctorates – who began training Aug. 7. After a week of orientation, they took part in the White Coat Ceremony Aug. 11, where students receive their first white coats, the physician’s traditional garment.

Originally from Traill County near Buxton, N.D., Walden earned his undergraduate degree in biology from UND while working full time as a mechanic. He applied to medical school three years in a row – from 2010 to 2012 – and was wait-listed at several medical schools, but ultimately didn’t get in.

So he continued working, and he and his wife Rachel began their family.

But he kept in touch with Kathy Sukalski, an associate professor of biomedical sciences at the School of Medicine & Health Sciences. Sukalski, who retired this spring, encouraged him to go to graduate school.

“I served on the School of Medicine & Health Sciences admissions committee,” Sukalski said. “Chris was very deliberative, very intelligent and had a strong service bent.”

At her urging, he attended a graduate recruitment event, which he thought would inform him about career opportunities.

There, faculty encouraged him to apply to the biochemistry and molecular biology program at the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences. So he did.

He was accepted, and once he began the program, he fell for the research.

Cancer research

“I was driven to find new information no one else had discovered,” Walden said. “I want to impact medicine, and I wanted to learn.”

At first Walden was interested in regenerative medicine and the regrowth of brain cells. But after visiting the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y., Walden knew that cancer research was for him.

“Seeing the cancer centers solidified everything,” Walden said. “I knew what I wanted to do and how to do it. I wanted to figure out what treatments are better. That’s what drove me to pursue my Ph.D. I want to extend life.”

Walden’s research and dissertation focus on the effect of early development of mice when they’re exposed to pesticides. He found that exposure to a particular pesticide, Paraquat, impacts the cells of the nervous system in young mice.

“We found significant changes in developing mice,” Walden said, adding that the work is continuing. “Exposure during early development may cause changes that can later impact diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and brain cancer.” He added that prenatal pesticide exposure can correspond to a higher chance of childhood brain tumors. But more needs to be done, he said. There is also some evidence that children exposed to certain pesticides also have behavioral abnormalities and cognitive development deficits.

Dream is alive

Walden completed the five-year Ph.D. program in just four years. And throughout the program, he said, faculty kept asking him why he wasn’t in medical school.

“I kept encouraging Chris to apply,” said Sukalski. “He’s really a find. He will be an excellent physician – the kind who can sit with patients and explain what’s going on. He will take the time to teach and explain, and he will be awesome. He always investigates possibilities, he’s mature and focused.”

So Walden applied. Again.

“I didn’t give up because I like education and I like to learn,” he said. “I was consistently learning as a mechanic, and graduate school was a whole new field. The medical field is a lifelong opportunity to learn.”

This time, he made it.

“The medical school interviews went well,” Walden said. “They honed in on what I had learned. I look at patient care as a team effort – the patient is the leader. It’s about the patients. If they own their healthcare and feel better about what’s going on, they are more likely to follow recommendations.”

And, he said, his skills as a mechanic allow him to think about problems differently – how the symptoms fit into the problems – and analyze them as a whole.

“I really wanted to get in to medical school at UND,” Walden said. “It’s a good school. UND trains medical students well – I’ve heard that first-year residencies are on a par with second and third year residencies at other schools. I like the hands-on training, and I already know most of the basic science faculty.”

The biggest challenge, he said, will be balancing work and family. He and Rachel have four children, ranging in age from 19 months to age 6. And he enjoys fishing and making furniture.

“I designed and built our first son’s crib in two weekends,” Walden said, adding that he has since built each child a bed, as well as an entertainment center and other furniture.

“Rachel is fantastic and very supportive,” Walden said. “I’m a workaholic and have no problem going to class and then focusing on family.”