Posted by on June 06, 2014 in Blog

Elias Zerhouni arrived in the United States after spending his youth in Algeria. While growing up in Algerian town Nedroma, his father, a teacher, stressed the importance and value of education. Elias was a gifted student, particularly excelling in the sciences and he was determined to become either an engineer or a physicist. As a student, he volunteered in a village in the mountains of Algeria and witnessed how the poor were affected by restricted access to quality healthcare. Seeing this suffering and realizing that he could do something to alleviate it, Zerhouni decided that medicine would be more fulfilling.

Despite this new direction, his enjoyment for physics was not easily abandoned. Within a formative moment, his uncle, a radiologist, showed Elias his first CAT scan, and explained the science and technology behind it. Zerhouni had found the perfect balance of physics and medicine to satisfy his two passions and decided to pursue medical imaging. After he received his M.D. in Algeria, he travelled to John Hopkins in Baltimore as a visiting scholar.

As he continued his research at John Hopkins University, he developed a quantitative analysis of imaging that allowed doctors to assess whether or not tumors required surgery. His research drew lots of attention and accordingly, he became a recognized and respected figure in American medicine. Dr. Zerhouni found this aspect of America wonderful—that merit is recognized and rewarded. Realizing this, Zerhouni’s career became motivated by the pursuit of innovation that could change people’s lives. Zerhouni founded or co-founded numerous start-up companies, namely, Computerized Imaging Reference Systems (CIRS), Advanced Medical Imaging, American Radiology Services, and Surgivision, Inc., an MRI image guided surgery company that led to advances in CAT scanning and MRIs and resulted in 157 peer-reviewed publications and eight patents.

In December 2001, Zerhouni received a call from the White House asking if he would like to be Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). He would become the first immigrant to fulfill this position at a top medical research agency, and according to Zerhouni, he saw this opportunity for public service as an important way to give back to the country that accepted him and gave him a chance. He also saw his appointment as a strong statement to his community and his children, in the turmoil of the post 9-11 world, that Arabs can be accepted and successful in America.  After a successful tenure of six years at the NIH that saw Dr. Zerhouni streamline research and development cooperation and establish a new focus on global health, President Obama appointed Zerhouni as a Presidential Science Envoy to the Muslim World. He has been working to strengthen scientific cooperation between the United States and a wide range of Muslim countries, believing that sharing scientific knowledge can help bring about peace.  

Zerhouni’s contributions to the American scientific field have been immense, winning him several honorary awards and assuming top medical positions. A researcher and radiologist, Dr. Elias Zerhouni has made a lasting and transformative impact on medical research, guiding future scholars to come. 


Read more stories about Arab immigrants and their descendants on the "Together We Came" main page.