Driven to be doctors

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- by Abby Weingarten
Dr. Valeria Valbuena

Learn more about how New College’s Latina alumnae are bringing compassionate care to underserved populations (cover story from the latest edition of Nimbus magazine).

As a young girl growing up in rural Colombia, alumna Dr. Valeria Valbuena felt deeply called to take care of her community.

When she moved to the Sarasota-Manatee area to attend college, she didn’t speak any English.

Today, she is a physician and a general surgery resident at the University of Michigan, and she credits much of her intellectual courage to her time as a “fearless learning” Novo Collegian.

Dr. Analiz Rodriguez

“I finished high school in Colombia and moved to Bradenton in 2008, and I got lucky that a world-class liberal arts education was just down the street from where I moved,” Dr. Valbuena said, adding that her father worked a seasonal job on Longboat Key and flew back and forth to South America. “In Colombia, we were in a low socioeconomic class, but there was always a strong push in my family to pursue higher education. There was not really an opportunity to support the academic development of a student from my background in my home country.”

But there was in Southwest Florida.

Initially, Dr. Valbuena attended State College of Florida, until Jane Pfeilsticker (a now-retired biology and biotechnology professor), steered her toward New College. Dr. Valbuena transferred in 2010 and began pursuing a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry.

“I always knew I wanted to become a physician. There was a lot of need around me growing up, and I saw the value that the physicians in my community had. But I honestly didn’t know what it took to do that here in the United States,” said Dr. Valbuena, who graduated in 2013. “In Colombia, you finish high school after 11 grades and start medical school right away. When I moved to the U.S., it was a surprise to me to find out that I needed to do four to five years of undergrad first.”

Pivoting quickly, Dr. Valbuena found New College to coincidentally be the ideal place to complete those unexpected undergraduate years.

“I was attracted to the curricular structure of New College—the opportunity to explore aspects of my education that I wasn’t able to focus on at community college because I was busy checking in boxes for my prerequisites,” Dr. Valbuena said. “I learned how to think at New College because they wanted me to think, instead of just getting me to answer questions in a multiple choice test. I can’t overestimate the value of having someone challenge me to come up with a question or an answer. This is ingrained in the way New College operates—trying to frame your mind to think. I continue to benefit from it today.”

Dr. Valbuena worked alongside New College Biochemistry Professor Katherine Walstrom, Ph.D. and Emeritus Professor of Biology Elzie McCord Jr., Ph.D., and wrote her thesis about invasive Japanese fruit flies. Her research aimed to be a first step to help farmers in Florida’s strawberry fields find better pesticides to keep the flies from damaging their crops.

“I spent two years on my New College thesis. The experience of being mentored to take a project to the finish line, and presenting research at conferences—those are all things I don’t believe students at large undergraduate institutions routinely get, not like we did at New College,” Dr. Valbuena said. “Having that edge—having gone through everything from being in the lab to writing and presenting—allowed me to come into medical school with a whole set of skills.”

Dr. Valbuena went on to receive her medical degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she was an active leader of the Latino Medical Student Association.

Her research interests include workforce diversity (focusing on medicine and surgery), healthcare disparities, community-based interventions to increase access to healthcare, and organ donation and transplantation in minority populations.

She was selected as part of the 2020-2022 cohort of the National Clinician Scholars Program, where she is completing her Academic Development Time while working toward a master’s degree in health and healthcare research. She plans to pursue fellowship training in abdominal transplantation upon completion of her surgical residency.

“My research focus has been on healthcare policy, specifically about the disparities in access to organ transplantation in Black and Latino populations,” Dr. Valbuena said. “My academic and social mission is to increase access to life-saving transplantation for patients who have a higher incidence of end-stage organ failure as a result of higher prevalence of hypertension, cirrhosis and diabetes. My entire family belongs to an at-risk population, and I’ve always gravitated toward caring for the population I belong to.”

Dr. Valbuena explained that access to healthcare is heavily influenced by policy, and that having the clinical knowledge and commitment to change is “incredibly powerful.”

“Many of the key stakeholders making decisions about resource allocation and regulatory policy have never taken care of patients. I believe it is very important for clinicians to be involved, and to influence the decisions being made that affect our patients,” Dr. Valbuena said. “The pandemic has shown that Black and Latino patients are dying at a higher rate compared to white patients, but that’s nothing new. Racism is not new. The problems arising from unequal access to resources and justice, as well as the people fighting for equality, have always been here. Now that there is a renewed societal and academic interest in equity, I’m excited to be able to have a platform from which to advocate for change, support our minoritized communities, and reform the system that has failed so many.”

Dr. Valbuena is also the lead for the LEAGUES Fellowship, a pipeline program designed for medical students interested in the intersection of surgery and racial/gender equity. As the Resident Life Director of Recruitment at Michigan Surgery, Dr. Valbuena hopes to redesign the surgical residency selection process, focusing on a holistic review of applications with the goal of making surgical training accessible to candidates of all backgrounds.

Having access to opportunities in the medical field was something Dr. Valbuena benefited from as an undergraduate at New College. The first year Dr. Valbuena applied to medical school, Dr. Lisa Merritt—an adjunct professor at New College and the founder of Sarasota’s Multicultural Health Institute—coached her through the process.

“Dr. Merritt took me under her wing when things weren’t working when I was applying to medical school. She saw the barriers I was facing, and she imparted to me that I had to get into medical school to make a difference in my community,” Dr. Valbuena said. “My mission to be a physician for underserved populations was heightened. She changed my life.”

Now Dr. Valbuena is paying this mentoring influence forward.

“I’m trying to get minority students into STEM careers. I’m helping to expose students to my field and strengthen their applications. I’m just one cog in the machine of trying to improve this—helping students who can help their own communities,” Dr. Valbuena said. “If there’s anything special about this time in history, it’s that we have reached a point where there is a growing awareness about the pressing need for representation and a renewed interest in taking critical action. I’m hoping we can seize this momentum and change the way we see worth and success in academia, so we can give everyone the same chance at the dream of learning.”

A Dream Realized

For New College alumna Dr. Analiz Rodriguez—a first-generation American—working as a neurosurgeon and brain cancer researcher is a sacred practice. And she has devoted much of her career to fighting for patients from underrepresented populations.

“Early in medical school, I’d go into the operating room and watch neurosurgery cases, and I felt at home and fell in love with it,” Dr. Rodriguez said. “I always felt that there was nothing else I’d rather do.”

A medical doctor with a Ph.D., Dr. Rodriguez has been the director of neurosurgical oncology and an assistant professor in the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) since 2017. Born in California to Puerto Rican and Dominican parents, she knew from the time she was a child that she wanted to be a brain surgeon.

She remembers watching a documentary on The Learning Channel in fourth grade about a child who recovered from severe epilepsy after a brain procedure. In that moment, she asked her mother, “What type of doctor does that?” and was told “a neurosurgeon.” Ever since, she has single-mindedly pursued that path.

“Being committed to helping others is very much tied to my own Catholic faith. And I’m a first-generation American, so I’ve always grown up with this idealism about America,” Dr. Rodriguez said. “I’ve always believed that this is the best country in the world, and that you can make something of yourself here. Being able to get to where I am now comes with a sense of responsibility in terms of wanting to help others too.”

A self-proclaimed lifelong “science nerd,” Dr. Rodriguez began entering science competitions in her teenage years. As a high school freshman, she placed in a regional science fair in Florida with her eco-conscious research project (about mealworms consuming non-biodegradable materials like Styrofoam and plastic), and competed internationally.

Then, at age 16, intrigued by the academic rigor of New College, she enrolled and pursued a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, working closely with Emeritus Professor of Chemistry Paul Scudder, Ph.D. She wrote her undergraduate thesis about organic chemistry synthesis—making a non-linear optical molecule and putting it into polyelectrolyte multilayers.

“I feel like New College is a utopia. It’s a place that, every time I vacation in Florida, I always stop by the campus and take pictures and remember the amazing time I had there,” Dr. Rodriguez said. “The types of free thinkers that New College promotes is incredible. It’s an unparalleled environment, and I don’t think I’ll ever be in an environment like that ever again.”

While she was a student at New College, Dr. Rodriguez regularly volunteered with the Newtown branch of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota County, which furthered her interest in serving people of color and groups from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

“I’ve always done a lot of volunteer work and, when you do that, you see how unfair life is for so many people,” Dr. Rodriguez said. “And when it comes to cancer care, someone really will die earlier than someone else just due to the fact that they don’t have insurance or that they live in a rural area or because they are uneducated and can’t understand the pamphlets they are given. These things motivate me to make changes.”

Dr. Rodriguez continued making changes after graduating from New College in 2003, matriculating with the Medical Scientist Training Program at Case Western Reserve University (sponsored by the National Institutes of Health) at age 19. She completed the M.D./Ph.D. program in six years. She finished her neurosurgery residency training at the Wake Forest University medical center and was inducted into the Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society.

During her residency, she was awarded an American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS) Neurosurgery Research and Education Foundation fellowship for her work in glioblastoma. She also was selected for a socioeconomic fellowship from the Council of State Neurosurgical Societies (CSNS).

Dr. Rodriguez is now a Congress of Neurological Surgeons (CNS) leadership fellow and was a member of the Women in Neurosurgery (WINS) executive committee. She did a neurosurgical oncology fellowship at City of Hope—a comprehensive cancer center that specializes in immunotherapy trials. She is on the AANS/CNS Tumor Section and serves as the secretary of the Communications and Education Committee of the CSNS.

Along with her oncology clinical practice, Dr. Rodriguez runs a brain tumor research laboratory in the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute at UAMS.

“I came to Arkansas for a specific reason. With cancer, if you live in a certain area or have a certain socioeconomic status, you don’t have access to cutting-edge cancer care,” Dr. Rodriguez said. “We have a lot of disease in Arkansas—a lot of brain tumors and cancer—but there’s not a lot of opportunity in terms of clinical trials.”

Her greatest career accomplishment, she said, has been building the infrastructure to provide people—especially those with limited resources in rural areas—with personalized medicine.

“Right now, we are looking at tumors and seeing if we can target something specifically for certain patients with these tumors,” Dr. Rodriguez said. “I’ve started a tumor bank that allows me to collect the tumors, grow them in a lab, sequence them, and understand a certain pathway we can target to help the patient.”

Her experience at New College contributed greatly to her ability to empathize with her patients, she said.

“New College is very different than other places. I feel like you really get a different view of the world and, even if you don’t come to New College one way, you come out more accepting of other people and points of view,” Dr. Rodriguez said. “A large component of taking care of people in medicine is about social interactions. I feel like a typical New College person is empathetic to other groups and is more open to hearing other opinions. That helps greatly in fields like medicine, where you should approach every patient in an unbiased way.”

Dr. Rodriguez also believes she developed an intellectual curiosity at New College that continues to serve her daily in her profession.

“I really like that New College focuses on self-motivation and the desire to learn. And medicine is a field where you’re constantly learning,” Dr. Rodriguez said. “I constantly have to read and learn for my patients because medicine is so rapidly changing. No one tells me to do it; it’s just that intrinsic curiosity to always learn and look for the answers. New College let me know that that was a valid way to learn, and that has always stayed with me.”

Read more of Nimbus here.

Abby Weingarten is the senior editor in the Office of Communications & Marketing.