Centers for Disease Control fellow researches tick-borne illness testing Meet Karen Valdez

Karen Valdez

Karen Valdez took her academic skills in tick research to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as a fellow, studying assays for tick-borne diseases. (Photo Credit: CDC)

For Karen Valdez, it was challenging to migrate from México after high school and to learn a different language and culture. Valdez’s parents were born and worked in México, and when she turned eighteen, she crossed the United States border every day to attend English classes at El Paso Community College (EPCC) to complete her basic education. While at EPCC, Valdez became a tutor for students with disabilities, which increased her desire to learn more about science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Due to University of Texas at El Paso being a Hispanic Serving Institution, she was able to participate in programs for minorities, such as Bridges to the Baccalaureate Training Program and Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE). These programs helped develop her skills as a researcher learning about mosquitoes, fleas and ticks. In addition, she enhanced her skills to begin conducting outreach and public health awareness of diseases in the El Paso region. These opportunities led her to becoming the first person in her family to earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree in biology.

The Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) provided her a unique opportunity to be introduced to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), where she participated in an internship program. Valdez became a part of the CDC National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases’ Influenza Division while she was finishing her master’s project. 

After graduating, Valdez accepted an appointment with the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) as a fellow at the CDC National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases in the Rickettsial Zoonoses Branch, under the guidance of her mentor, Sandor Karpathy. The CDC Research Participation Programs are educational training programs designed to provide students, recent graduates and university faculty the opportunities to participate in project-specific CDC research, current public health research and developmental activities.

Valdez is expanding tick surveillance in the United States by utilizing advanced molecular detection of pathogens to understand the prevalence and distribution of intracellular bacteria from the genera Rickettsia, Anaplasma, Ehrlichia and Orientia, which are transmitted by metastriate tick species. Additionally, she is working on the development of efficient workflow and assay validation for testing ticks utilizing next-generation sequencing.

Valdez highly recommends the ORISE fellowship. Being exposed to ORISE has helped her with the transition from being a student to a professional, allowed her to seek opportunities to learn new skills and provided her with versatile proficiencies collaborating with other like-minded scientists. 

After her fellowship, Valdez would like to become a federal employee at the CDC because she understands the importance of improving public health and a better quality of life to culturally diverse communities.

From the ORISE Featurecast, Episode 35: From dental school to infectious disease scientist: A conversation with Karen Valdez

For as far back as she an remember, Karen Valdez wanted to be a dentist, and went to dental school in Mexico. Still, she longed for an education in the US and took English as a Second Language classes at El Paso Community College. Valdez's interest in science fueled her desire to continue her education. In this episode of the ORISE Featurecast, hosts Michael Holtz and Matthew Underwood talk to Valdez about her role as an ORISE Fellow at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where she is conducting research into tick-borne illnesses. Throughout the conversation, Valdez talks about how she came to love science, her educational journey, the importance of mentorship and collaboration, and what she hopes comes next in her career trajectory.

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The CDC Research Participation Program is managed by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) under an agreement between CDC and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.