The words Maxson Joseph and a photo of a Black man with a beard smiling. There is a blue background

Meet the Research Team: Maxson Joseph


Maxson Joseph, a research assistant in the Center for Rehabilitation Outcomes Research, doesn’t use his own picture in Zoom meetings when his camera is turned off. Instead, he has a picture of one of his heroes – Lewis Hamilton, the first ever Black Formula One driver.

Since Hamilton has been in the sport, he has broken every single record and has won seven Formula One Championships. In 2021 he was poised to win a record-breaking eighth Championship, but something outside his control happened. “He was robbed,” says Maxson.

For most of the two-hour race, Hamilton had built a comfortable lead and was expected to win. But in the final laps there was a crash. Even though at the time of the crash Hamilton had passed his main rival, Max Verstappen, 5 other cars and was 15 seconds ahead of the car in second place, when the officials reset the drivers they decided to put Verstappen right behind Hamilton before restarting the race. Verstappen had changed out his tires right after the crash, giving his car far better traction compared to Hamilton’s car, which was on the same tires for half the race. Verstappen passed Hamilton, igniting a firestorm of outrage among Hamilton’s massive fan base.

In Formula One, officials can name a winner based on the locations of the drivers three-quarters of the way through the race if something happens and the race can’t be completed properly. At that point in time, Hamilton was first and Verstappen was sixth. But the officials didn't make that call and Verstappen won the Championship.

To Maxson, what happened to Hamilton is terrifying, and he thinks about it often as he looks ahead to the goals he wants to achieve in his career. “You can be the absolute best, undisputedly, but the actions of other people around you and the people in charge of the governing systems can decide tomorrow to derail your progress and there will be nothing you can do about it,” says Maxson. “Especially if there is no representation to argue for you.”

The idea that random events or people that just happen to have power over you can play an oversized role in your future is something Maxson struggles with. He is currently applying for graduate programs in clinical psychology and the stress of having his career in the hands of unseen others is disquieting. He wants to go into research and cites his work in the Center for Rehabilitation Outcomes Research working on the National Spinal Cord Injury Database as a crucial step along that path.

Maxson was born in Chicago, but moved to Nigeria with his aunt when he was just 2 years old. He returned to Chicago in 2014 and started taking pre-med classes at Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills, Illinois. Although he was drawn to the law, his mother, who is a nurse, urged him to go into healthcare. “She thought it was a more stable career path,” says Maxson.

At age 17, Maxson enrolled in the Air Force to get tuition assistance benefits to help pay for his classes. He became a jet propulsion specialist. After six months of training, Maxson found himself working on KC-135 Stratotankers – the planes used to refuel jets in the air. He worked at a base in Indiana one weekend a month and for two consecutive weeks once a year. “I never worked on these planes before, but I like to solve problems, and if you give me a problem or an opportunity to learn, I will 100 percent learn how to do it,” Maxson says.

The stress of balancing school and an intense job far from his Chicago home eventually led to Maxson’s decision to separate from the Air Force. He became interested in mental health and research, and enrolled at University of Illinois at Chicago where he earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology. “I’ve always been interested in how people make decisions, so I was drawn to psychology. It can also help get you into different fields of research,” explains Maxson.

In his last semester at UIC, Maxson participated in a research training program called Chicago CHEC at Northwestern University where he worked on a project about psychological health and cancer survival rates. “I was introduced into the field of research and inequities in research and healthcare. That’s when I first started to think about getting a PhD to become a clinical psychologist and conduct research studies that focus on Black men, who are not well-studied or included in psychological research,” says Maxson.

After the program ended, Maxson started applying for research positions that would help in his application for graduate school. He joined CROR in 2021 as a research assistant in the Midwest Regional Spinal Cord Injury Care System. He conducts interviews with patients with spinal cord injury for the National Spinal Cord Injury Database. These patients get a call every five years after discharge from the hospital and are asked about health, function and general quality of life.

“I had offers for research opportunities at a few different hospitals and universities in Chicago, but I chose to take the job at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab because I was interested in learning more about the reality of these patients who have had something so traumatic happen in their lives and I was interested in seeing how they cope with it afterward,” Maxon says.

Maxson has a sense of urgency in becoming a clinical researcher which stems from a strong desire to help people. He also believes strongly in representation in research.

“Research is about storytelling,” says Maxson. “As a kid in Nigeria, I literally grew up listening to stories under the moonlight and these stories shape the way you see yourself and the things that you believe are possible. The stories of minoritized people in healthcare and society in general have largely been told by people that don’t know what it’s like to be from that minoritized background what it is to live their reality.”