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Joel and Jesse Charles Have School of Medicine and Public Health Seeing Double

The Charles twins have been spotted studying on the third floor of Ebling Library in the Health Sciences Learning Center, helping organize programs aimed at healthy lifestyles for schoolchildren and lobbying legislators at the State Capitol for public health and environmental issues they care deeply about.


If their first year was any indication, there will be many more Charles spottings in the next three years as the brothers continue their medical education.


Joel and Jesse CharlesAs youngsters, the Green Bay natives used their duality to occasionally pull off creative capers to fool their teachers and friends. But they got serious during college.


Both earned their undergraduate degrees at the UW-Madison: Joel in Spanish and Latin American studies and Jesse in zoology. But deep down, they were intrigued by the wonders of science and always considered a career in medicine.


Each was admitted to the School of Medicine and Public Health, but chose to wait a year before starting classes.


"We knew we wanted to study medicine, but we also wanted to think about why we wanted to do it," says Joel.


The two participated in AmeriCorps, a federal program that promotes volunteerism for needy causes. Joel worked as a coordinator in Clarksdale, Mississippi, for Habitat for Humanity, which builds homes for families that can't afford them. Jesse got involved in Pittsburgh's chapter of Public Allies, which focused on civic leadership training and how to run a nonprofit group.


"Being a twin, sometimes you establish a dual identity, and people make perceptions of you together," says Joel. "Going to different places gave us a chance to independently make our own set of friends and establish ourselves as individuals."


Twin Brothers Make a Great Team


After starting classes at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, their sameness baffled some of their new classmates, and even former Dean of Students Patrick McBride, MD '80, MPH, himself a fraternal twin.


"I'm getting better at telling them apart, but only when they have different haircuts," McBride says.


Jesse says getting through their first year of medical school was a great learning experience.


"We spent our time determining the most efficient way to study," he says. "It's great working with Joel. When you are so close genetically, you understand each other at different levels. We know how each operates. We work through arguments with each other and hammer out the logic."


Adds Joel, "We learn and understand things in similar ways. We are both very visual. We can understand the deeper concepts and how they work. We pick up things in the same ways during studying."


Besides handling the demands of their classwork, Joel and Jesse devoted time and energy to lobbying before state legislators on measures that could impact public health.


The two testified on behalf of the Clean Energy Jobs Act, which would have required state businesses to use alternative energy sources that reduce or eliminate pollution.


"No one was talking about the cost of burning fossil fuel and coal and their consequences on public health," says Jesse. "Emissions from these industries are linked to heart attacks, lung disease, asthma, high blood pressure and other illnesses. Our health care system is picking up the bill for coal's negative health costs."


While the bill didn't pass, Joel, Jesse and a number of other School of Medicine and Public Health students collaborated afterward with the 12,000-member Wisconsin Medical Society to draft a policy statement endorsing greater restrictions on future electricity production. It is hoped that this endorsement will encourage policies supporting healthier, locally sourced energy production.


Together with several physicians, Joel, Jesse and some of their classmates also testified in favor of the Farm to School Act, which would assure schools get fresh produce from local farms to serve at school lunches. The idea is to reduce the rising rate of childhood obesity by offering healthier foods in school cafeterias. That bill was overwhelmingly approved, but lawmakers still must allocate funding in the next state budget to pay for the program.


Joel and Jesse are also actively involved in the Healthy Classrooms Foundation (HCF), a student-run nonprofit organization that awards scholarships for initiatives that teach schoolchildren the importance of diet, exercise and healthy lifestyle choices.


Contributing Outside the Classroom


The twins believe strongly that their activities outside the classroom are very important.


"Seeing how we step out and do things involving the environment and public health, other students have also started to follow causes that are important to them," says Joel. "That makes being part of this medical school community very satisfying."


McBride has been impressed by the active role the Charles brothers have taken in bringing attention to public health issues.


"These are two outstanding future physicians who are truly health advocates," McBride says. "These are the type of students we hoped would come to the School of Medicine and Public Health when we transformed into a school of medicine and public health. They have a very high level of integrity and commitment."


Besides supporting causes that aim to improve the health of the public, and hitting the books, Joel and Jesse are avid dancers.


"I started learning African dance from a close friend of mine," says Joel. "I really enjoyed it and started dancing with the African Student Association. Dancing is a great release for me to get stress out and simply enjoy myself. I also started learning to salsa through several campus organizations and have been quite addicted to it."


While the twins have not yet determined what path they would like to take in their medical careers, Joel and Jesse are grateful that they have the opportunity to become doctors and contribute to society.


"We've always looked at the bigger picture - how to give back and make positive changes," says Jesse. "We had a lot of help getting here. We wouldn't be here without the benefit of good teachers, amazing parents and a lot of financial support from different grants. We're paying back and supporting the people who have given us what we have."

Date Published: 08/19/2010

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Joel and Jesse Charles Have School of Medicine and Public Health Seeing Double

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