From Field Hand to Brain Surgeon

    • November 14, 2010

More than two decades ago, Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa climbed over a fence separating Mexico from the United States in search of a better life. He had grown up in a poor family in Mexicali, Mexico, and had worked at his father’s gas station from the age of five. When he finally reached California at age 19, he settled for a job pulling weeds as he began a long climb toward professional success as a new immigrant in the United States.

Today Quinones-Hinojosa, M.D., is a highly respected brain surgeon at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Harold Amos Medical Faculty Development program scholar (2008-2011).

“My hands, the very same hands that now do brain surgery...had scars everywhere from pulling weeds,” Quinones-Hinojosa said in a recent interview on CNN.

Quinones-Hinojosa soon landed a job working for a railroad as a welder and used the money he earned to pay for night school. He won a scholarship to the University of California at Berkeley, where he studied law. In his last year of undergraduate studies, however, he changed his mind and decided to pursue medicine.

“I thought back to my early childhood, where my grandmother was a town healer and a midwife,” he said in an interview. “I really loved the challenges of science, and I realized I might want to explore that side of my past.”

Quinones-Hinojosa enrolled in medical school, and by 1999 he had earned his M.D.—with honors—from Harvard University.

“I had big dreams, and I knew deep in my heart that if I worked hard, one day I was going to be able to make something of myself and contribute to this world,” Quinones-Hinojosa said. “Growing up poor in Mexico gave me the tools and the passion and the fire in my belly to keep moving forward. What some may see as a misfortune, I saw as an opportunity to enrich myself.”

Now an associate professor of neurosurgery and oncology at Johns Hopkins University, Quinones-Hinojosa is the director of the brain tumor program at the hospital’s Bayview campus.

Quinones-Hinojosa’s research as a scholar in the Harold Amos Medical Faculty Development program and at Johns Hopkins focuses on the role of stem cells in the origin of brain tumors and the potential role stem cells can play in fighting brain cancer and helping patients regain neurological function. A mentor told him about the Harold Amos program when he was still in medical school. It provides four-year postdoctoral research awards to physicians from historically underrepresented groups who are committed to developing careers in academic medicine and to serving as role models for students and faculty of similar background.

“What a beautiful group of people,” Quinones-Hinojosa said. “No other program has given me such a sense of family. They truly give you the tools and advice to become a successful academic, and they make it their responsibility to see that we succeed.”