Ph.D. Pathways in Cancer Research: Andrew Maxim

By Reagan Malenius

Originally from Connecticut, Andrew Maxim knew he wanted to become a computer scientist when at 9 years old, he taught himself how to code using his sister’s computer.

Andrew Maxim, Ph.D.

After graduating from high school, Maxim went to work in industry for the next 15 years before pursuing his bachelor’s degree in management information systems from Excelsior College online. His zeal for learning led him to pursue a master’s degree a few years later from Iowa State in systems engineering.  

While taking courses online at Iowa State, Maxim took a class by James Oliver, Ph.D., that sparked a passion for virtual reality and human-computer interaction. Interested in continuing this path, Maxim reached out to Oliver for advice on pursuing a Ph.D., something Maxim knew little about. Oliver gave the following advice: 

  1. Don’t pay for a Ph.D.; pursue research assistant positions
  2. Your academic adviser is to guide your path
  3. Wherever you go, make sure it’s your path.
Andrew Maxim presents his research with Eric Cooks, Ph.D., during the TICaRT research symposium in August 2023.

The advice carried Maxim to the University of Florida — his first time stepping onto a higher-education campus and pursuing research. Maxim joined the Virtual Experiences Research Group of Benjamin Lok, Ph.D., in the department of computer and information science and engineering in the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering, where he uses virtual humans to help reach underrepresented and underserved populations for colorectal cancer screening.  

Maxim’s main research project is Meet ALEX, which uses a virtual clinician that can speak both English and Spanish to help increase rates of colorectal screening. Patients can meet with the virtual clinician from their own home, learn more about colorectal cancer, and even order a fecal immunochemical test (FIT) to screen for colorectal cancer. 

Maxim was also a part of the UF Health Cancer Center’s Team-based Interdisciplinary Cancer Research Training program, a National Cancer Institute-funded T32 training grant (PI, Dietmar W. Siemann, Ph.D.) that offers a unique training opportunity for pre- and postdoctoral trainees to develop interdisciplinary skills in cancer research and experience with transdisciplinary approaches. Maxim collaborated with postdoctoral fellow, Eric Cooks, Ph.D., in the Department of Advertising in the College of Journalism and Communications. 

Andrew Maxim, right, speaks during the 2023 Cancer Research Symposium for High School Students in Ocala.

The program provided a valuable opportunity to collaborate in a cross-functional team, share and facilitate new ideas, and be challenged in how to think about and conduct research, Maxim said. 

“I’m a computer scientist. “Computer programmers, if left on their own, will either create a video game or design a tool to create a video game. We’re useless without collaborators.” 

– Andrew Maxim

For those interested in pursuing a Ph.D. pathway, Maxim’s biggest advice is: “Learn to love failure. Learn to understand that criticism is not against you; it’s to improve you.” 

Upon completion of his Ph.D. training, Maxim plans to continue working in cancer research through virtual environments and focus his research on HPV vaccine efforts.  

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