By Abby Weingarten
As a young girl growing up in rural Colombia, New College 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.
“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 at 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,” Dr. Valbuena said. “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.”
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 (MHI), 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.”
Abby Weingarten is the editor/writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing.