Adesola Akinkuotu, MD, is the new Assistant Professor at UNC Surgery in the Division of Pediatric Surgery. She sat down to discuss her journey from Nigeria to North Carolina, her childhood aspirations to be a neurosurgeon and how she decided to focus on Pediatric Surgery.
Dr. Akinkuotu received her undergraduate degree in biology from Wake Forest University in 2005 before earning her medical degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2010. She conducted her general residency training at Johns Hopkins in 2017 concurrent to her two-year research fellowship in pediatric surgery from Texas Children’s Hospital. Most recently, Dr. Akinkuotu completed her general pediatric surgery fellowship at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Ontario.
What inspired you to become a doctor?
There were a few contributing factors on my journey to becoming a physician. When I was young, I had a cousin in Nigeria who had a long-term illness. I would go to the hospital regularly to visit him, which gave me the chance to see the healthcare system as a family member of a patient. In school, I was always attracted to the sciences, specifically biology and the human form. Those experiences motivated me early on to be a doctor because it married my interests in science and taking care of people.
I am fortunate to have a family that cultivated my ambition from an early age. As time went on, I also had opportunities that encouraged and grew my interest in the medical field. I attended North Carolina School of Science and Math. While I was here, I completed a mentorship program with a neurosurgeon at UNC Medical Center. Once or twice a month, I would shadow him in clinic, review MRIs, and talk with him about brain tumors. It was thrilling. The most impactful part was seeing how he interacted with his patients; how he wanted to change their lives. The experience motivated me and helped me to solidify my decision to become a physician.
Why did you choose to become a surgeon?
I remember being in medical school and loving all my rotations. The operating room was especially appealing to me, getting hands-on experience inside the human body. With surgery, I can see a patient in clinic one day, diagnose a problem, operate on them the next and see an immediate impact in their quality of life. In many cases, it is a linear, defined sequence. Outside of the operating room, I enjoy the human factor. It’s a great privilege every day go to work and cultivate meaningful connections with my patients, relationships that allow them to put their trust in me, helping them be comfortable enough to give themselves over to me to take care of them. Surgery is a highly rewarding specialty.
Why pediatric surgery?
Towards the end of my third year, I was largely undecided about what path I wanted to take. I considered neurosurgery, general surgery, and obstetrics because I enjoyed delivering babies. Then I had the opportunity to go away for a year to conduct research in Malawi. I shadowed the general surgeons, cared for patients, and realized what I liked about general surgery was the chance to work with both adults and children. That’s how I decided to apply for a general surgery residency.
Going into residency, I was determined to do either trauma or pediatric surgery. I did my pediatric surgery rotation early in my training and fell in love with the patient population. What I liked was I could still have the breadth of surgical capabilities of a general surgeon, but I was getting to take care of kids from birth until 18 or 21.
Children come with different needs, biology, and a distinctive pathology. The patients are kids; they are resilient in a way that sometimes adults aren’t. I enjoy forming those relationships with kids and their parents. It allows me to have a long-term connection with patients, which I realize is something I treasure about what I do. Pediatric surgery has been everything I wanted and more, both rewarding and exciting.
What brought you back to the UNC and specifically to the Department of Surgery?
I enjoyed my medical school experience at UNC. During my training, I felt the surgery faculty were invested in teaching the students and residents. It also seems like a collegiate environment to work in, one that fosters growth at all levels. It’s a place where I can have good mentors as I start my academic career, as I look to the leadership team including Dr. Kibbe and more immediately Dr. Hayes-Jordan.
UNC Surgery is a place where I can take care of the patients of North Carolina, which is essential to me, but also a place where I can have good leaders, mentors, and colleagues. Ultimately, when I came back to interview, the longevity of the faculty stuck out to me—their commitment to the department, university, and to their patients. It also helps to be able to know that I’m coming back home and can be close to my family.
Why did you choose to pursue academic medicine?
I chose the path of academic medicine because I can teach and conduct research. I am exposed to teaching medical students and residents, which keeps me motivated, stimulated and a lifelong learner. The research component is also essential. I’m fortunate to be in a university setting where I can pursue my academic interests, collaborate with others, and be surrounded by scientists on the cutting edge of medicine.
What are some goals you’d like to achieve during your time at UNC surgery?
My immediate short-term goal is to help grow the fetal care program here at UNC. In order to achieve that goal, I will be working closely with our maternal-fetal medicine team, to make that a reality.
We will work as a group to provide prenatal care for mothers of fetuses with congenital anomalies. This will involve assessing patients and determining if there is any role for fetal intervention or surgery and setting up a plan for postnatal care.
Another goal of mine is to develop my clinical practice. I’m at the beginning of my career, so I want to start building a clinical area of expertise. With my research, I am looking to continue my projects which look at long term patient outcomes.
If you could pick the brain of someone alive or dead, who would it be?
I would love to talk with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian author. I’ve read a number of her books, and I think she’s a phenomenal writer. What I find most interesting about her writing is the intersection of two different cultures, much like me. She writes about some of the issues associated with a cross-cultural background that I’ve experienced first-hand. I don’t think it would be so much picking her brain as much as it would be sitting with her to have lunch. I’d love to ask her how she comes up with her stories. What’s her motivation?
What profession did you want to be when you were a kid?
When I was in primary school, I wanted to be a neurosurgeon. We would have to write essays in class about what we wanted to be when we grew up. At the age of seven, my seat partner wrote that he wanted to be a neurosurgeon. I had no idea what a neurosurgeon was, so I went home and looked it up in the dictionary and remember thinking, “This sounds fascinating.” I decided then and there that I wanted to be a neurosurgeon.
Can you give me an example of a failure you’ve had in your career or in your life that ended up being a blessing in disguise? Alternatively, something you may have learned from it.
A failure that comes to mind was my first semester, freshman year of college. I was taking my first chemistry class, and it became apparent quite quickly that I disliked chemistry. I had my first test, and it was awful, I failed. I’d never failed anything before. It was my first test, things were not going well, and I could see how things were going to spiral over the course of the semester in this class on top of my full course load. I called my parents in a panic because I was on a full scholarship and terrified I’d lose it if I ultimately failed the class. I remember standing in my dorm room wholly devastated.
My dad told me I was going to be fine, to buckle down. He reminded me this is what I wanted to do. He told me it was going to be okay. I had to rethink my approach. Pretty much every chemistry class after that I spent going to all the office hours. I didn’t end up failing the course, but it did prepare me for every other disappointment or failure that came after that.
If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?
I would tell my younger self to enjoy life more. There’s always going to be a goal. There’s still going to be something that you’re working towards. It’s important not to let that get in the way of you enjoying the time you have with your friends, your family, and going on some adventures.
How would you describe yourself in one word?
If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
The superpower I would choose would be to make time slow down. I think the time slowing down piece would be the ability to stretch things out a little bit longer, give me more than 24 hours in a day.
For more information please check out her faculty profile.