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Zack Aibaidula presents his poster at Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences research symposium

May 15, 2024

By Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science staff

When Abudumijiti (Zack) Aibaidula walks across the stage to receive his Ph.D. at Mayo Clinic's commencement ceremony, he will mark the next stage in a remarkable educational journey. He shares his story and deep gratitude to Mayo Clinic and the mentors who have helped shape his career.

My story is a testament to the possibilities that await at Mayo Clinic. I hope that my journey can also encourage others pursuing their dreams in any field to see the hope and opportunity that Mayo can provide.

I was raised in Hotan, a secluded city in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of northwest China. My life began as a shepherd boy in a household deeply rooted in traditional Uyghur medicine, thanks to my great-grandfather, a respected traditional medicine practitioner. The aroma of medicinal herbs and the ancient medical texts in our home probably piqued my interest in the medical field.

My hometown is one of the most isolated and medically underserved areas in China. My father, a schoolteacher, and my mother, a grocer who once aspired to be a physician, faced financial challenges. Though she had once been accepted to medical school, my mother had to forego her dream when she was young to work in a silk factory and support her siblings.

I made up my mind to become a neurosurgeon

A defining moment for me came in the summer of 2003 when a close family member who raised me experienced a severe headache. A head CT showed a hematoma. The doctor told us she needed brain surgery, but the nearest available neurosurgeon was more than 300 miles away. She passed away during the transfer, and I made up my mind that I would become a neurosurgeon, so others would not have to experience that.

Throughout my childhood, I had to balance studies, shepherd responsibilities, and navigate a language barrier as a member of the Uyghur minority in China whose parents did not know the Chinese language. But ultimately, I ranked fifth in the college entrance exam out of 167,000 students in my region and was accepted at the Shanghai Medical College of Fudan University, one of the top three medical institutions in China, and subsequently to the M.D. in Surgery program at Huashan Hospital, considered one of the best neurosurgery programs in the country.

Pursuing my dream at Mayo Clinic

During my training in Huashan, I developed a strong research interest in neuro-oncology and was lucky to get to know neurosurgeons from the United States. Determined to become a neurosurgeon-scientist, I pursued my dream at Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, under the mentorship of Ian Parney, M.D., Ph.D.

My Ph.D. research in his lab in Rochester, Minnesota, focused on developing a noninvasive technique for the early detection of brain tumors, particularly glioblastoma. Though rare, glioblastoma is one of the most common malignant brain tumors in adults, with a five-year survival rate of less than 5%. My studies examined plasma samples from Mayo Clinic's neuro-oncology biobank and ultimately found specific markers, detectable in the plasma, specific to glioblastoma. The findings establish the foundation for a potential blood test to detect tumor recurrence, a tool that could quickly and definitively change a patient's treatment plan. My hope is that my research will lead to advances that help detect glioblastoma early and prolong the survival of patients.

Mentors who made an impression

During my time at Mayo Clinic, I was constantly impressed by Dr. Parney's dedication to student education. Despite his busy schedule as a neurosurgeon-scientist, he always made time for our biweekly Monday morning meetings, to sit together in his office and discuss everything from project progress and life experiences to career goals and personal well-being. He embodies the person I aspire to become — an ideal example for my future. I look forward to continuing to work with him and learn from him.

I was lucky to have wonderful faculty on my thesis committee. Aaron Johnson, Ph.D., and Akhilesh Pandey, M.D., Ph.D., provided tremendous support with my experiments. Steven Rosenfeld, M.D., Ph.D. Zoomed in all the time from Mayo Clinic in Florida to discuss my project and give feedback. David Daniels, M.D., Ph.D., gave wise career development and planning advice.

A clear path forward

I finally accomplished my dream to match into neurosurgery residency in the U.S. and am currently an intern in the Department of Neurosurgery at University of Missouri School of Medicine in Columbia, Missouri.

I have learned that one might survive, but not thrive, without the support of their community. It is uncertain if I will ever be able to return to my village. But my path forward is clear — complete neurosurgery residency, continue my research, and promote diversity in science and medical training, while advocating for patients from underrepresented backgrounds.

I hope that my training will allow me to contribute both in my new home, the United States, and someday in the community I grew up in.


Learn more about Commencement for Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine and Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.