By Abby Weingarten
For Dr. Analiz Rodriguez—a first-generation American and New College alumna—working as a neurosurgeon and brain cancer researcher is a sacred practice. And she has devoted much of her career to fighting for patients from underrepresented populations.
“Early in medical school, I’d go into the operating room and watch neurosurgery cases, and I felt at home and fell in love with it,” Dr. Rodriguez said. “I always felt that there was nothing else I’d rather do.”
A medical doctor with a Ph.D., Dr. Rodriguez has been the director of neurosurgical oncology and an assistant professor in the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) since 2017. Born in California to Puerto Rican and Dominican parents, she knew from the time she was a child that she wanted to be a brain surgeon.
She remembers watching a documentary on The Learning Channel in fourth grade about a child who recovered from severe epilepsy after a brain procedure. In that moment, she asked her mother, “What type of doctor does that?” and was told “a neurosurgeon.” Ever since, she has single-mindedly pursued that path.
“Being committed to helping others is very much tied to my own Catholic faith. And I’m a first-generation American, so I’ve always grown up with this idealism about America,” Dr. Rodriguez said. “I’ve always believed that this is the best country in the world, and that you can make something of yourself here. Being able to get to where I am now comes with a sense of responsibility in terms of wanting to help others too.”
A self-proclaimed lifelong “science nerd,” Dr. Rodriguez began entering science competitions in her teenage years. As a high school freshman, she placed in a regional science fair in Florida with her eco-conscious research project (about mealworms consuming non-biodegradable materials like Styrofoam and plastic), and competed internationally.
Then, at age 16, intrigued by the academic rigor of New College, she enrolled and pursued a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, working closely with Emeritus Professor of Chemistry Paul Scudder, Ph.D. She wrote her undergraduate thesis about organic chemistry synthesis—making a non-linear optical molecule and putting it into polyelectrolyte multilayers.
“I feel like New College is a utopia. It’s a place that, every time I vacation in Florida, I always stop by the campus and take pictures and remember the amazing time I had there,” Dr. Rodriguez said. “The types of free thinkers that New College promotes is incredible. It’s an unparalleled environment, and I don’t think I’ll ever be in an environment like that ever again.”
While she was a student at New College, Dr. Rodriguez regularly volunteered with the Newtown branch of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota County, which furthered her interest in serving minorities and groups from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.
“I’ve always done a lot of volunteer work and, when you do that, you see how unfair life is for so many people,” Dr. Rodriguez said. “And when it comes to cancer care, someone really will die earlier than someone else just due to the fact that they don’t have insurance or that they live in a rural area or because they are uneducated and can’t understand the pamphlets they are given. These things motivate me to make changes.”
Dr. Rodriguez continued making changes post-New College, matriculating with the Medical Scientist Training Program at Case Western Reserve University (sponsored by the National Institutes of Health) at age 19. She completed the M.D./Ph.D. program in six years. She finished her neurosurgery residency training at the Wake Forest University medical center and was inducted into the Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society.
During her residency, she was awarded an American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS) Neurosurgery Research and Education Foundation research fellowship for her work in glioblastoma. She also was selected for a socioeconomic fellowship from the Council of State Neurosurgical Societies (CSNS).
Dr. Rodriguez is now a Congress of Neurological Surgeons (CNS) leadership fellow and was a member of the Women in Neurosurgery (WINS) executive committee. She did a neurosurgical oncology fellowship at City of Hope—a comprehensive cancer center that specializes in immunotherapy trails. She is on the AANS/CNS Tumor Section and serves as the secretary of the Communications and Education Committee of the CSNS.
Along with her oncology clinical practice, Dr. Rodriguez runs a brain tumor research laboratory in the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute at UAMS.
“I came to Arkansas for a specific reason. With cancer, if you live in a certain area or have a certain socioeconomic status, you don’t have access to cutting-edge cancer care,” Dr. Rodriguez said. “We have a lot of disease in Arkansas—a lot of brain tumors and cancer—but there’s not a lot of opportunity in terms of clinical trials.”
Her greatest career accomplishment, she said, has been building the infrastructure to provide people—especially those with limited resources in rural areas—with personalized medicine.
“Right now, we are looking at tumors and seeing if we can target something specifically for certain patients with these tumors,” Dr. Rodriguez said. “I’ve started a tumor bank that allows me to collect the tumors, grow them in a lab, sequence them, and understand a certain pathway we can target to help the patient.”
Her experience at New College contributed greatly to her ability to empathize with her patients, she said.
“New College is very different than other places. I feel like you really get a different view of the world and, even if you don’t come to New College one way, you come out more accepting of other people and points of view,” Dr. Rodriguez said. “A large component of taking care of people in medicine is about social interactions. I feel like a typical New College person is empathetic to other groups and is more open to hearing other opinions. That helps greatly in fields like medicine, where you should approach every patient in an unbiased way.”
Dr. Rodriguez also believes she developed an intellectual curiosity at New College that continues to serve her daily in her profession.
“I really like that New College focuses on self-motivation and the desire to learn. And medicine is a field where you’re constantly learning,” Dr. Rodriguez said. “I constantly have to read and learn for my patients because medicine is so rapidly changing. No one tells me to do it; it’s just that intrinsic curiosity to always learn and look for the answers. New College let me know that that was a valid way to learn, and that has always stayed with me.”
Abby Weingarten is the senior editor in the Office of Communications & Marketing.