An outstanding Gator

Published: December 14th, 2016

Category: Alumni Portraits, UFAA Outstanding Young Alumnus

By Styliana Resvanis

Alex Cuenca, M.D. '06, Ph.D '12

Alex Cuenca, M.D. ’06, Ph.D ’12

As a child, Alex Cuenca, M.D. ’06, Ph.D. ’12, recalls watching his father practice medicine as a surgeon and hearing his mother discuss her work as a nurse, but he always thought his own future career was cemented in the research world.

“There were definitely moments when I was almost trying to deny that I was my father’s son,” said Cuenca, who received his bachelor’s degree from New College of Florida in Sarasota, where his undergraduate thesis was on plant viral genetics. Despite this, he was still drawn to patient care and actively sought out opportunities to shadow local physicians.

After conducting extensive basic science research and discovering a passion for immunology, he had a lightbulb moment: he would pursue translational research, which would marry his love of science and his interest in treating patients.

Ultimately, it was this passion for research that led him to the UF College of Medicine. Prior to medical school, he spent several years at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg and Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, where he studied tumor vaccines and ways to overcome immune tolerance.

A triple Gator, Cuenca — who completed medical school in 2006, earned his doctoral degree in 2012 and completed a surgery residency in 2015 — is following in his father’s footsteps after all by pursuing a fellowship in pediatric surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital.

He has received countless accolades for his research endeavors throughout his career. Most recently, he was chosen as one of two College of Medicine graduates to receive the 2016 UF Alumni Association Outstanding Young Alumni Award, which recognizes Gators who have graduated within the past 10 years, made a significant impact on their industry and achieved significant professional accomplishments at the state, national or international level.

“Alex is a graduate of the UF COM whom every medical student should try to emulate,” wrote Sanda A. Tan, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor of surgery at UF, when nominating Cuenca for the award. “He should be commended for accomplishments in clinical, research and education endeavors. I believe he will continue to contribute and make UF COM proud.”

Alex Cuenca in research ab

Cuenca counts department of surgery faculty members Lyle “Linc” Moldawer, Ph.D.; Saleem Islam, M.D. MPH; and George Sarosi, M.D., among his mentors throughout his time at the UF College of Medicine.

Cuenca counts matching at Boston Children’s Hospital and completing his doctoral and medical degrees among his proudest academic accomplishments thus far.

“This would not be possible without the mentorship and guidance I received at UF,” he said.

As a fellow in pediatric surgery, a typical day for Cuenca begins with arriving at the hospital around 4:30 a.m. to review data and radiologic studies done overnight and visit patients before heading into surgery.

“I’m in the OR all day and sometimes into the night, depending on the case,” he said.

And while he feels at home in the operating room, he said the best part of his job is post-operative visits with patients.

“Seeing them do well and then leave the hospital and return to a normal life, I don’t think there’s anything better than that,” he said. “Having children myself and seeing the extent of the pathology here at Children’s, it makes me appreciate how incredibly lucky I really am … and the ability to help patients, even if it’s just a small facet of their overall clinical course, just makes me so glad that I made this career decision.”

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