Alexis Simpkins was 2 1/2 years old when she surprised her mother, Bettie, during their nightly story time.
"She said to me, 'I'll read today,' " Bettie said. "And I said, 'No, Alexis. I'm going to read the story,' because I thought she would just be remembering what I said about the story. But she actually started reading a book and I realized she was actually recognizing the words. That's how it really started."
That early love of learning and keen curiosity would carry Alexis through a series of Augusta schools over the past 25 years, culminating today in a commencement ceremony at the Medical College of Georgia when she will be awarded both her medical degree and a doctoral degree in vascular biology.
Her mother is not surprised.
"I've not known her to not complete a goal that she has set for herself," Bettie said.
The goal of becoming a physician was there from the very beginning, Alexis said.
"I never wanted to be anything else really, which I guess is kind of weird for a little kid, retrospectively thinking about it," she joked.
It was while she was in the honors program at Augusta State University that she took a research apprenticeship at MCG and wound up with Dr. Susan Fagan, the assistant dean of the University of Georgia College of Pharmacy, which is affiliated with MCG. Fagan does research into stroke, and though Alexis was shy and didn't say much, she made an impression.
"I just liked her work ethic," Fagan said. "She was going to do it. She was going to become a physician, and was looking for every single opportunity she could get to learn and to accomplish things."
Despite her reserved nature, Alexis shone at organizing information and making presentations, earning a prize her first summer for a presentation for, basically, a failed experiment, Fagan said.
"She got up there and presented it in a really compelling way of all the things she learned even though she didn't get anything publishable out of it and it really didn't work," Fagan said.
That thirst for learning has always been there, Bettie said.
"She is just very inquisitive," she said.
It is one of the reasons Fagan believes Alexis has what it takes to be successful in the lab.
"I think the No. 1 thing she has is curiosity," Fagan said. "You have to be very curious to persist through all of the disappointments."
Like Fagan, Alexis chose to focus her research on stroke. She has been studying something called soluble epoxide hydrolase inhibitors as both a treatment for patients having strokes and a preventative for patients at risk. In looking at rat and mouse models of hypertension and stroke, those inhibitors seemed to help limit the area of damage from the stroke and to prevent the kind of vascular changes in the brain from hypertension that can lead to stroke, Alexis said.
"For me, that would have been one of the avenues that you could go about for neuroprotection and vascular protection," she said. The challenge of treating stroke and the lack of good medications to treat it, particularly in the days after a stroke, is one of the things that attracted her to the field.
"We don't have good solutions for it," Alexis said. "And even trying to rehabilitate patients I think we have a lot to do that we could improve on it. Prevention is key but also treatment in the acute phase."
It is also personal for her: she watched her grandmother suffer some paralysis and speech problems from a stroke and recently her father, Samuel, has had two strokes.
"That was like the defining event for me," Alexis said. "Neurology is exactly where I need to be."
And it is one of the reasons she wanted to go through the difficult MD/Ph.D program at MCG.
"Being an MD you can have one-on-one interaction with patients, and then being a researcher you can come up with new ideas or concepts to treat the patients, and come up with new mechanisms for treatment that could affect people worldwide," Alexis said.
She'll begin her neurology residency in a year at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. But first she will intern for a year at MCG. It will be one more year in a journey in Augusta that began at Wee Wisdom preschool, then wound through Windsor Spring Elementary School, Sego Middle School, A.R. Johnson Health Science & Engineering Magnet School, Augusta State and then eight long years at MCG.
"We get her for another year," Bettie said, sitting with Alexis at the kitchen table in their house in south Augusta.