Malcolm Jones PhD ’23 makes history as Division’s first Black PhD graduate.
BY JAMIE WETHERBE MA ’04
GROWING UP, MALCOLM JONES PHD ’23 BELIEVED he was destined for two possible careers. “I was either going to be president or a surgeon,” Jones says.
While his path didn’t lead him to the Oval Office, Jones has certainly become a leader: he’s a first-generation American and first-generation college student.
“My family is very proud that I’m getting my PhD,” Jones says of his parents, who left Liberia for the United States for better educational opportunities and a better life in general.
Beyond that, Jones will be the first Black graduate of USC’s PhD program in biokinesiology — a fact he has conflicting feelings about.
“It’s positive because the Division has made commitments to address equity in education by diversifying enrollment, leadership and faculty,” he says. “The negative aspect, honestly, is it was sad for me — it’s 2023, it seems there should no longer be a ‘first.’”
Going through undergrad, Jones was still on track to become a physician, studying biology and visual arts at Emory University in Atlanta. But his experiences with the healthcare system lead him away from the O.R.
At 15, Jones was diagnosed with lupus nephritis, a disease that causes the immune system to attack the kidneys.
After starting Emory, Jones’ condition worsened: He had to go on dialysis three times a week. To make his 9 a.m. classes, Jones scheduled his treatments for 5 a.m.
“A lot of my sadness about how the medical system currently works is because I grew up in a hospital,” he says. “I saw how problematic a lot of things were.”
Later, as part of his undergrad, Jones took a class on how health care can hinge on capitalism. “We can treat people, but we don’t prevent people from getting sick,” he says.
Jones also learned the importance of movement. “We’d learned about diseases, and the conclusion was usually, ‘if you exercise, you won’t get this condition.’”
Jones saw research as an avenue to not only prevent disease, but to have the potential to change the wider medical system. After looking into various doctoral degrees, Jones felt USC’s biokinesiology program best aligned with his background in biology.
While USC was Jones’ top choice, coming to California became a life-and-death choice. After years of dialysis, Jones needed a kidney transplant, a surgery he struggled to access in Atlanta.
In California, however, he found the doctors — and the kidney donor — he needed. In 2017, Jones underwent a successful surgery. “It was really serendipitous that USC had the perfect program for me,” he says.
During his studies at USC, Jones found the community projects most rewarding, including introducing young people at the Crenshaw YMCA and Jordan Brand Flight Lab to science through basketball.
“We showed them 3-D printing, biomimicry and prosthetics,” he says. “We expanded what they thought they could be as people who love sports.”
Fortunately, Jones won’t go far after graduation — he’ll continue his research at USC as Director of Health Innovation, a post-doc tailored to Jones’ expertise by the Division and USC Iovine and Young Academy.
“I have a commitment to incorporate health innovation across all academic pathways at the universi-ty,” he says. “The goal is to educate people who typically don’t think they’re effectors of health and show them how they are. We’re changing how health is viewed. It encompasses everything I want to do, at a place I’m really happy to be at.”