The brain symbolizes our world. The first time I saw that brain dancing in a patient, you realize this is the most beautiful organ in the body. When I open the brain, I can't tell whether you're Jewish, Christian, Muslim, black, white, Asian or Hispanic. And then, not only is the brain the most beautiful organ in our body, that allows us to be who we are, but [it] gets affected by the most devastating disease there is, which is brain cancer.
I think that [was] shortsighted. You can have influence by providing medical care to 100 people a year, or reaching millions of people through the kind of work that I'm doing now. There's a need for both, but I felt my goal was to do research, and I fell in love with the brain and never abandoned those dreams.
A med school student told you the only reason you got into Harvard was because of quotas. You've been mistaken for a janitor. One patient didn't want to be treated by a "dirty Mexican." How did you handle all that?
You look at the blog [comments] when "Hopkins" came out -- and I'm sure you're going to get it through your newspaper -- I can't do anything about that. The beauty of the United States is that everybody is entitled to their opinion. And words can be hurtful sometimes. But this is what I'm doing for my country; this is what I'm doing for humanity. And maybe one day all those negative thinkers will change their minds. I have a very thick skin.
I had to think carefully before I told my story. But I think that's what it takes to change the world.
Every day, when I leave the hospital and see people cleaning the floors and working in my office, I say thank you. Why? Because I've been on the other side. I was invisible. My parents are still invisible. When my mother had health problems, [she] told the doctor her son was a brain surgeon at Hopkins and the doctor laughed, literally.
Inevitably your story makes you a symbol for many immigration issues, like the DREAM Act.
I do recognize that, but I'm not here to talk about laws. I'm just a regular guy who has harnessed the power of the American dream, and I want people to think they can do it too. I can only tell you what I have done and what I do today. I get called all the time to come and talk about immigration, and I say, "Guys, I am a brain surgeon and scientist. I know nothing about immigration reform. I know nothing about laws; as a matter of fact, you don't want me to spend my time learning about this."
What's the deepest mystery of the brain you'd like to solve?
I'd like to find the part of the brain that makes us love each other and eradicate the part of the brain that make us hate each other!
You'll be in California in October to speak in Los Angeles and in the San Joaquin Valley. How do you feel, seeing fields like the ones you worked in?
I love the smell; it just brings me back to my roots. Even thinking about it, I get goose bumps. I'm sure [it] stimulates my limbic system! It reminds me of where I was just two decades ago and where I am today. It reminds me of the incredible human potential; I'm not just talking about myself, I'm talking about everyone who surrounds me, [people] struggling every day. It gives me the sense that together we can do it.
This interview is edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. An archive of past interviews is at latimes.com/pattasks.