Logo: University of Southern California

From Immigrant to Bioengineer

Latino specialist Francisco Valero-Cuevas makes his case for the beauty of science
Jorge Morales Almada
January 25, 2009 —

For years, Francisco Valero-Cuevas has been deciphering how the brain controls the human body. His work, aimed at creating a new generation of robots and human prostheses, is pure bioengineering. It combines mathematics and physics with biology and medicine. By studying how organisms function, he hopes to develop better clinical treatments to restore these functions.

“There are very few Latinos in the sciences. Not because we can’t, but because we have not taken advantage of the opportunities that exist,” says Prof. Francisco Valero-Cuevas Photo credit: Aurelia Ventura/La Opinión.
Click to read the original  La Opinión story in Spanish

If there were a Nobel Prize in bioengineering, Valero-Cuevas' work would make him a prime candidate. A Mexican immigrant, he is one of the most eminent investigators in a branch of science few Latinos have been able to enter.

Supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute for Disability Rehabilitation Research, and foundations dedicated to science, Valero-Cuevas has sought to understand how the brain controls complex systems like the human hand.

“We are asking what is a hand, what are its mechanical properties, and what does a brain have to do to make it work. We want to use this understanding to create the next generation of robotic hands - the existing ones are not at all versatile,""says the 44-year old Mexico City native, "And also — we really want to take hand prostheses, which are now not very functional at all, up to the next level.”

As a 19-year old high school graduate in the Mexican capital, Valero-Cuevas approached the U.S. Embassy to apply for a scholarship. He received one through the Institute for International Education in the city's Benjamin Franklin Library.

He used the grant to earn an engineering degreee from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. When he became passionate about Indian philosophy he won another scholarship that enabled him to travel for a year in India.

On his return, he won a fellowship at Queens University in Canada where he earned his MS in mechanical engineering. Another fellowship led to a PhD in biomechanical engineering from Stanford University.

Today, Valero-Cuevas is a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Southern California's Viterbi School of Engineering and the Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy, following faculty appointments at Cornell University and at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.

What’s the key?

Francisco 2
Francico J. Valero-Cuevas, a professor of biomedical engineering at USC, demonstrates a piece of equipment to Dr. Heiko Hoffman, as student Manish Kurse looks on.
“Do your best in school, right from elementary school,” he said. “Sadly, there are few of us in the sciences. In my area of bioengineering I only know two other Latinos in the United States. National statistics show that only three to four percent of professors in the sciences are Latinos.”

But getting into the field is not really hard, Prof. Valero-Cuevas said. All that’s needed is a lot of passion and energy.

“But in our superficial consumer culture, in general we don’t pay enough attention to the beauty of science, to the importance of thought and creativity, to the basic qualities that make us humans — the powers of discovery, invention and investigation.

Valero-Cuevas is committed to motivate children and youth to get into science. Through USC programs he is approaching schools to find ways attract them to the subject.

“If this article inspires or energizes a single boy or girl toward science, it was worth it. There are few of us in this field is  because in our communities in the USA we don't have many role models. A boy or a girl who considers becoming a scientist doesn't see a clear path,” said the researcher, whose engineer father and accountant mother always instilled in him the importance of Franciso 1education.

Valero-Cuevas is now energetically reaching out to create programs foster the participation of minority groups in the sciences.

“There are very few of us in the sciences. Not because we can’t, but because we have not taken advantage of the opportunities that exist.”

Originally published in La Opinión, January 25, 2009. Written by Jorge Morales Almada; translated from the Spanish by Claudia Melendez.