Crossing disciplines, and international borders

Rhodes Scholar John Mikhael, who calls both the U.S. and Lebanon home, is also comfortable in many scientific fields.
Anne Trafton
MIT News

John Mikhael sees three fields as key to understanding the brain: math, neuroscience, and medicine. “If you want to understand how the brain works, combining those three is a great way to get there,” he says.

Mikhael, who graduated from MIT in June with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, plans to pursue his study of neuroscience next fall when he enters an MD/PhD program at Oxford University with a Rhodes Scholarship.

“Neuroscience is a very exciting field,” he says. “In many ways, the brain is the most sophisticated computer out there. Our brains can do things effortlessly that we couldn’t even dream of teaching computers how to do, like producing language, understanding social cues, or recognizing faces with our level of proficiency.” 

“We can identify clouds that look like ponies — computers can barely even identify ponies that look like ponies,” Mikhael adds. “Neuroscience can inform medicine, computer science, and machine learning. From there, it’s hard to think of a field it can’t benefit.”

Between two worlds

Born in Dallas to a family of Lebanese and Syrian descent, Mikhael grew up as a typical American kid until third grade, when his parents decided to move back to Lebanon. Arriving in his new home outside Beirut, Mikhael felt some culture shock, but it was mitigated by the fact that so many Lebanese were familiar with American culture, which at the time was all he knew. 

“Everybody knows how to talk to an American, a lot of people speak English there, and everybody watches ‘Friends,’” Mikhael says. “But there were small elements here and there that struck me as very different,” he recalls.

From large differences such as focus on family values versus focus on individuality, to smaller things like older men and women constantly giving him wet triple-kisses on the cheek, it took Mikhael a while to get used to his new environment, but eventually Lebanon started to feel like home.

In April, Mikhael won MIT’s Isabelle de Courtivron Prize for an essay about his experiences growing up in two different cultures and trying to figure out where he fit in. After he won the Rhodes, many more people read his essay and he started hearing from people around the world. “I was getting emails from people in Indonesia who said, ‘I completely identify with what you wrote, and here are my reasons why.’ It’s very nice,” Mikhael says.

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