By Ujunwa Cynthia Okoye-Okafor
On March 6th, 2013 Einstein hosted Dr. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa as its MSTP Translational Speaker. He is Professor of Neurological Surgery and Oncology, and Director of theBrain Tumor Surgery Program at Johns Hopkins Bayview Campus.
Dr. Quinones (or Dr. Q as he is popularly called) was born and raised in Mexicali. He moved to the United States at age 19 and began to work as a migrant farm worker in California. At that time he couldn’t speak English. He recalls his first year in medical school when he wrote his notes in Spanish and how difficult it had been to translate from English to Spanish. But he was determined and learned English. He received his Medical degree (MD) from Harvard University and, thanks to the Physician-Scientist Career Award from the National Institute of Health, he was able to do a postdoctoral fellowship training in developmental and stem cell biology during his Residency training at the University of California, San Francisco. He came to Johns Hopkins in 2005. In 2007, Dr. Q was named one of the 100 most influential Hispanics and was elected by Popular Science Magazine to its Brilliant 10 Scientists Award. Today, Dr. Q runs his own laboratory, where his research is focused on delineating the role of brain stem cells in fighting brain cancer and for regaining neurological function.
Winner of multiple awards and recognitions, Dr. Q is an internationally renowned neurosurgeon and neuroscientist. With a CV that is 75 pages long, it’s awe-inspiring that he makes himself available to students all across the country and the world. He is truly an inspiration – family man, physician, author, mentor and researcher, Dr. Q does it all.
Our goal? To understand the inner workings of this brilliant Mexican-born neurosurgeon and scientist.
Q: How was it adjusting to life in the U.S.?
A: “Like everything in life there are challenges that are presented in front of you.”
Most challenging was to assimilate the culture. Trying to understand what’s going on around you through media, sports, and such. In the area where he worked as a migrant farm worker, there was no drive to learn a different language considering that everyone mostly spoke Spanish. However, this language deficit became pronounced on attempting to venture out of those farming areas. Dr. Q stresses the importance of learning multiple languages, especially due to the strong impact it has on the brain, creating novel and complex connections that didn’t exist before.
Q: Do you remember your first brain surgery procedure? How did you feel then? Do you still feel that way today? (If not, how has it changed?)
A: “I feel stronger [about the brain] today.” “My passion and awe for the brain has become even more powerful. I’ve learned how incredibly dangerous what I do is and how delicate the brain is.” Dr. Q goes on to describe how he was “enamored” by the pulsating brain. Compared to his early experiences, he takes more into consideration today, considering the incredible privilege he is given by his patients when they entrust him with their brain. Using words such as “passion” and “love” it is clear to see that Dr. Q holds much respect and admiration for his chosen profession and task. He allows himself to form connections with his patients through discussions/conversations and feelings. “The older I get, the more emotional I get about what I do… I see how I can change lives.”
Q: As a brain tumor surgeon, how do you deal with losing a patient? What keeps you going after each loss?
A: “You have to be able to learn from the bad news.” With each experience, he assesses the situation and asks himself “What can I do to change this outcome?” and “How can I make it better the next time?” “I allow those emotions register in my heart and my brain. I welcome those changes [occurring in the brain as these emotions are being registered].” With each patient loss, Dr. Q becomes “stronger” and “more focused” and this is a key driving force in his life. He finds that he becomes capable of doing even more in less amount of time.
Q: In a sentence, what is the focus of your lab research?
A: We study migration of cancer cells in the brain and we use multiple tools to study this.
Q: Do you ever feel prejudiced (regarded as less qualified due to your skin color and accent)? And how do you deal with that?
A: “Yes” Dr. Q replied. He recognizes that this is an emotionally charged question. “I am in a privileged position today because the people who have come to see me are self-selected in that they come to me based on my skills…[they] have a need for a higher specialized surgeon.” However, as a young doctor, there were people who were referred to him that would make comments to his assistants about his skin color and accent. Some even asked whether or not he was aware of what was going on. Dr. Q. explains, “I never paid attention to that… It is my responsibility is to take care of these patients.” And although people may still have reservations “it doesn’t register in my mind.” “Am I perfect? Absolutely not. I continue to learn and challenge myself.” Dr. Q has learned to ignore the negative energy that may come from his patients or their relatives. He chooses not to focus on negativity.
Q: Looking back on your life, is there anything that you would have done differently? Professionally? Personally?
A: “Professionally…I am happy with all the choices that I have made so far. My family has sacrificed more, that I regret the most. Maybe I should have paid more attention as a father or as a friend. Even though my wife and my kids don’t think I am a bad husband or father. I am the most critical of myself.”
Q: You are married with 3 kids. How do you keep up with your family, lab, surgeries, patients, other positions, the current literature and still run half marathons? What does Dr. Q do to relax? How do you manage to keep yourself sane?
A: To relax, I enjoy watching movies with the kids and going for runs. On the weekend, Dr. Q wakes up early. Makes sure his children are all set with breakfast. Then they have various activities such as art classes. At that time he can work on his manuscripts and fit in an intense 1-hour workout session. During the week, between patients or while the OR is being turned over, he goes for short runs with his team. He explains, “it’s about multitasking. Enjoying every single moment.” He tries to stay healthy, physically and mentally. “I look for the joy in the things that other people may find painful… Block[ing] the negative thoughts.”
Q: What final words of encouragement do you have for all our young aspiring translational researchers?
A: “Never give up on your dreams. Keep working hard. Dreams don’t come without a price. It’s about putting the time in and finding the passion. Keep up the good work. Always find joy in the things that other people may find to be painful. If you are able to do that, you’ll be able to be successful.”
For more information about Dr. Q, see his autobiography [Becoming Dr. Q: My Journey from Migrant Farm Worker to Brain Surgeon].
Ujunwa is currently a 6th year MD/PhD student working in the laboratory of Dr. Ulrich Steidl in the Department of Cell biology. She is Nigerian-American, born and raised in Lagos, but has lived in the States for the past 10 years. Married, but no children yet. Although Ujunwa and her husband are enjoying the time so far without them, they are definitely looking forward to having their own bundles one day. Ujunwa says, “I have always aspired to make a positive impact on the world. At this time, I’m not decided about what kind of physician-scientist I’d like to be in the future, but I am leaning toward hematology/oncology and pediatrics. I love traveling, spending time with family, watching movies and shows, drawing and reading novels.”