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Home » Discover Rackham » Student Spotlight: Chris Valdez

“I knew right away that I was really interested in doing research.” As an undergraduate at the University of Texas at San Antonio, Chris gravitated to the research spotlight sections at the end of his premed physiology textbook chapters, calling them a ‘healthy distraction’. He says, “These sections were so interesting to me because they gave me a different perspective on the material. They showed me how scientists discovered a particular biological phenomenon or advanced research for a certain vaccine. When I went to office hours I’d ask my professor about these sections, and that's where she introduced me to a career in research.”

Chris was supported by his grandparents growing up and though his grandfather was a nurse and gave him a strong background in the field, the scope of research possibilities was unknown until then. He describes, “It was my grandpa’s influence that drove me to pursue a career in the medical field. He wanted me to be able to take care of myself – a better life if you will. During my sophomore year of undergrad, he began to see my passion for research so he advocated for me to pursue my ambition. I didn’t know it at the time, but he was mentoring me to be an adult and to believe in myself. That’s when I got into research. I began a fellowship program for first generation college students that were interested in science. Since then I’ve just been taking it as far as I can – no limits.”

That experience afforded Chris the opportunity to first author two papers and present an oral presentation at a national conference, a very rare experience for an undergraduate. Those great experiences were tempered with the reality around him: “I really started to notice some disparities in terms of educational opportunities. I would see some of my friends who had a lot of challenges in front of them and who worked really hard, but they had to put so much effort in just to move forward a little. So as I began to pursue graduate education I wanted to think about framing my career to help students who have a lot of challenges to push through.” He was steered by an undergraduate advisor who told him if he wanted to make a difference for first generation students who want to pursue a field in science, he needed to show the way. He says, “my advisor told me to lead by example, to be the best scientist I could be, do really good work and give back along the way.”

“That’s what made me think about choosing Michigan. U-M offered the biggest support network, its research was multidimensional, and there were many areas of neuroscience that I was interested in,” he says. Still, moving here was a big change for Chris in terms of climate and location, but he found grad school to be socially fun and academically rewarding. As a Rackham Merit Fellow, Chris started his graduate experience with Rackham in the Summer Institute, and there he states, “ I was around other students who had similar goals to mine. He explains, “Students were just so smart. I was in an environment where everyone had this desire to work really hard and do something impactful in their field. It was really rewarding to be around students like that and it helped me gain confidence moving forward.”

In the laboratory Chris is completing his dissertation work in Neuroscience. In his secondyear, he was awarded a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship for his research. He explains, “My work focuses on how the brain can strengthen connections during learning. I’m looking on a cellular level at the processes that take place during learning and on a functional level at the connections in the brain that strengthen to store memories. When brain cells communicate, they strengthen on a cellular and functional level. I’m looking at structural and functional changes in the brain that are modified as a result of this process. The implications are that you want certain areas of the brain to strengthen during learning, but it’s also important to weaken connections to forget things as well. There are some disease states where this system becomes dysregulated (autism, schizophrenia) and the implications of my work can potentially lead to understanding mechanisms of some these neurological diseases.”

In his department, Chris plays a role in helping students navigate their way. He’s started grad student panels on a variety of topics to give other students a chance to learn from their predecessors. He says, “We create a dialogue of practical advice and the senior students that participate in the panel are passionate about sharing their experiences and advising the next generation of graduate students here at Michigan.”

As a fifth year candidate, Chris will graduate soon and is pursuing a unique career path in military science. He was awarded a National Research Council Postdoctoral Fellowship to pursue research in a federally sponsored laboratory. He was selected to join an Air Force research group, and has designed experiments to look at how high amplitude radio frequencies could affect neurological function.

This has been a challenging course to navigate, but one that comes fairly naturally to him after growing up in San Antonio, a city with a heavy military influence and culture. He expands, “I like this potential career where I can focus on work that can help veterans or enlisted soldiers. I’m also interested in opportunities to look at what happens to different brain areas in veterans with PTSD. I’d like to get involved in this work and be an advocate to help veterans understand the basic science behind PTSD by presenting the work more broadly.” He says, “I’ve been interested in this career for a while, but it took some digging around to find people who have done it. Actually, through a little research I found that some of the military scientists I was looking up graduated from Michigan, and the alumni were really helpful in guiding me.”

Soon he’ll be embarking on his career, but now Chris is still making contributions to scholarship at Michigan and having some fun while he’s at it: “At U-M it’s not all work and no play. I really appreciate the Rackham Graduate School for this because they host a variety of events that help me stay on target with my dissertation, but also have fun during my last summer here at Michigan. They have programs that help grad students balance life and work.” He’s participated in plenty of both, attending thesis writing programs and Rackham parent events. He describes, “It is a lot of fun meeting other graduate students that are also parents. It’s nice to find out they’re all crazy like I am. Whatever your background or interest, it’s very rare to be the only one who has that interest. You’ll find you’re not alone here.”