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Twins hope to work together to cure neurodegenerative diseases

Jonathan Willman, left, and his twin brother Matthew Willman were both biomedical sciences majors and are recent graduates of the University of South Florida. Both plan to attend medical school.  [USF]
Jonathan Willman, left, and his twin brother Matthew Willman were both biomedical sciences majors and are recent graduates of the University of South Florida. Both plan to attend medical school. [USF]
Published May 11, 2018

TAMPA — It was with the flip of a coin that identical twins and recent University of South Florida graduates Jonathan and Matthew Willman found a new way to differentiate themselves.

Until then, only minor details separated the 23-year-olds.

As teenagers, they wore distinguishable shoe colors. Jonathan, the eldest by a few minutes, went with black and his younger brother Matthew with white.

As USF students, they used their curly locks to set themselves apart, with Jonathan growing hair past his shoulders and Matthew trimming his just above.

Almost everything else about them is similar, from their hipster fashion to their degrees: a major in biomedical sciences and double minors in psychology and biomedical physics. Even their class schedules were always identical.

Then, a year and a half ago, they chose their medical specialties.

Two Ph.D. students at the Byrd Alzheimer's Institute needed assistants, one to help with the research of Alzheimer's and the other with Angelman syndrome, a genetic disorder causing developmental disabilities in kids.

"We let chance decide," Jonathan said. "Heads, I would do Alzheimer's research, while tails was Matthew would do Alzheimer's. By default, the other person would de Angelmans. It was heads."

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Still, they admit, both diseases are neurodegenerative in nature, so there is hardly a major chasm between the fields.

"That's just how we handle all our stuff," Matthew said. "Small variations."

The Sarasota natives were never the type of twins who wanted to dress alike. "My parents tried," Matthew said. "By the age of 6 we said no."

But their interests as kids were alike. They both loved the outdoors, building computers and reading, each averaging 25 books a year.

Their original plan was to become writers and English professors at the same university. Then, while attending the State College of Florida in Bradenton they decided to change paths —together, of course.

Medicine had always interested the brothers, so they agreed to take an anatomy and a physiology class. If they enjoyed each, they would become doctors. The next year, they were pursuing that career at USF — again, together.

"We just like working together," Jonathan said. "If we succeed, we want to succeed together. If we fail, we'll fail together."

They never failed.

They graduated this month with matching 4.0 grade point averages, earned by studying together and competing against each other.

"We always ended up with the same grades," Matthew said. "We'd get the same questions wrong or different questions wrong but get the same grade."

"And when we competed to see who could get the most A+'s," added Jonathan, "we'd end up with the same amount but in different classes."

They will be taking the next year off from school to study for the Medical College Admission Test while continuing their research at the Byrd Institute.

They don't yet have preferences for medical schools, though they'll likely stick together. And after that, perhaps the same hospitals too?

"We are trying to create unique aspects of our personality, so we are not totally the same," Matthew said. "But I would enjoy that. "

Jonathan figures they should probably avoid working the same emergency room shifts.

"It seems like it would be annoying to hear all day, 'Paging Dr. Willman and Dr. Willman,'" he said.

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.