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The Remarkable Journey of Doctor Q.
He grew up poor, south of the border. Now he’s a neurosurgeon, bent on finding a cure for brain cancer.

Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa, with Aztec calendars, reminders of his native Mexico, in the background.
When he arrived in the United States as an illegal migrant farm worker in 1987, Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa was 19 years old. He spoke not a word of English and had less than $5 in his pocket. But he had something that many native-born Americans lack—a burning desire to make something of himself.

Today, Quiñones—or Dr. Q., as he is known to colleagues—is an assistant professor of neurosurgery and oncology and director of the Brain Tumor Surgery Program at Hopkins Bayview.

In just this one year, Quiñones, 38, has won more than a half-dozen prestigious awards, including a $150,000 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Physician-Scientist Early Career Award that will help fund his studies on the role of stem cells in the origin of brain tumors. Another, the Nickens Faculty Fellowship from the Association of American Medical Colleges, recognizes Quiñones for leadership in addressing inequities minorities face in medical education and health care. His lab is one of the most racially and ethnically diverse on campus—a consequence of his belief that “as you go up in life, you should always look back and help the people behind you.”

Having achieved so much, Quiñones might be expected to lay back and bask in his accomplishments. Not a chance. Instead, he has set himself another daunting goal. “My new challenge,” he says, “is to find a cure for brain cancer.”



From top, the gas station in Mexicali, Mexico, where Alfredo Quiñones worked for his father starting at age 5; the fence he jumped to cross the border from Mexicali to Calexio, Calif., as seen from the United States side; in the San Joaquin Valley, his first home in the United States.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, as the saying goes, and for Quiñones, the step was actually a jump—up and over a chain-link fence separating the United States from his childhood home in Mexicali, Mexico, on the Baja peninsula. “It was a little scary but thrilling at the same time,” he says now. “When you are 19, you think you are invincible.”

His first job in America was pulling weeds in tomato and cotton fields in California’s San Joaquin Valley. One day, as he was laboring in the hot sun with other migrant farm workers, the owner’s son came by to inspect the work. “He passed us without saying hi to anyone, as if we didn’t exist, as if we were inanimate objects,” Quiñones marvels. “That made me realize how little we immigrants meant as people to those around us.” But rather than discouraging him, the casual indifference of the owner’s son, he says, ignited “a fire in my belly and started me on the long hard road that was ahead of me.”

That journey took him first to the San Joaquin Delta Community College in Stockton, Calif., where he attended classes and led literacy and statistics workshops for fellow immigrants, and then to the University of California at Berkeley, where he served as a lab assistant and a calculus and physics tutor for students from low-income backgrounds.

Inspired by the example of his grandmother, a curandera—village healer—back home in Mexico, and by his own desire to connect with people in a deep way, Quiñones decided while at Berkeley to pursue a career in medicine. He had set his sights on less competitive medical schools when his mentor, an administrator who ran a Hispanic Center of Excellence, intervened.

“When he saw my CV and my grades, the first thing that came out of his mouth, in a thick Mexican accent, was, ‘Oh amigo, with these grades, you can easily get to Harvard.’ I thought this guy was clearly living la vida loca.”

It was a story he told in 1999 when he delivered the commencement address at Harvard Medical School, where he graduated cum laude and became an American citizen.

After Harvard, it was back to California for a residency in neurosurgery at the University of California at San Francisco, this time accompanied by his wife and 1-year-old daughter. In July 2005, he and his growing family arrived in Baltimore.


Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa with his lab group.

Quiñones got off to a fast start at Hopkins Bayview, setting up both a clinical practice and a stem cell research program that has been successful in today’s competitive funding environment in winning NIH grants.

He recently discovered a potential source of neural stem cells in the subventricular zone of the adult human brain. By comparing these cells to human fetal stem cells and cancer stem cells taken from intraoperative tissue, he hopes to tease out the connection between normal stem cells and cancer stem cells. He also hopes to learn how the molecular switches that turn normal cells into cancer cells can be reset.

In July, Quiñones delivered a talk at the University of Guadalajara. It was the first time he’d been back to Mexico. “I left a peasant; I came back a professor,” he says.

Such a journey is open to others, Quiñones insists. His own ascent was the result of tremendous energy, ambition, determination and especially, he says, the influence of mentors. “People have given me so much. Now I am trying to give back as much as I can.”

—Deborah Rudacille

 

 

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