Patricia Valdes isn’t grossed out by ticks—you know, those tiny bugs that burrow in your skin and suck your blood. She’s interested in them and fascinated by the microorganisms they transmit.
As the assistant director of the Walker Research Lab at UTMB, she’s dedicated the last 25 years to learning more about the biology of the pathogens that ticks carry.
“When you hear about emerging infectious diseases, that’s what we’re talking about,” said Valdes. “Many of these diseases, such as chikungunya, West Nile encephalitis, some rickettsioses, and Ehrlichiosis are vector-borne, and spread by mosquitoes, fleas and ticks. We are working to understand threats like these and ultimately develop treatments and vaccines for humans and animals. This work has a global impact.”
Valdes, who has a master’s degree in genetics and molecular biology, has worked closely with Dr. David Walker since joining the lab in 1990. Walker is the past chair of the Department of Pathology and currently leads UTMB’s Center for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases.
I meet up with Valdes at the entrance to UTMB’s Galveston National Laboratory. She patiently waits as I pass through a security checkpoint, then greets me with a warm smile and a pleasant French accent. She explains how her family moved to the U.S. from France when she was 18, and I immediately feel like I’m talking to an old friend—she’s incredibly down-to-earth considering the sterile, scientific environment where she works.
As we make our way to the Walker Lab, Valdes introduces me to each person we see in the hallways, from the engineers who keep the GNL running to neighboring researchers. One person tells me that I will have a good time shadowing Valdes, as she knows how to keep the lab productive yet fun.
Wait! “Ticks” and “fun” can go together? I ask just what “fun” I’m in for and Valdes explains that she is preparing to run an experiment that afternoon. Lucky for me, Valdes doesn’t handle live ticks—she works with their DNA and proteins, so I won’t have to worry about anything crawling on the counter and hitching a ride on my arm.
“Currently, we’re researching a new tick-borne bacterium, Ehrlichia murislike agent (EMLA), that has infected people in Minnesota and Wisconsin with ehrlichiosis, a disease that causes feverish illness,” said Valdes. “I’ve been characterizing the proteins that have been extracted from EMLA in hopes of discovering what antibodies are needed to neutralize the bacteria.”
A constant humming fills the Walker lab, as sub-zero freezers and refrigerators work full-time to keep organisms and other materials preserved. Valdes keeps the area inviting, with family photos decorating her work space and a colorful lab jacket hanging over her chair.
As she shows me around, I shake hands with a diverse group of PhD students, faculty and visiting faculty from around the world, including China and Brazil. They all tell me about their collaborative research projects as I pretend to understand. I write down key words to look up later and realize that I’ll have to do some research of my own.
I ask Valdes if she ever thought she’d be working so closely with ticks. She laughs, recalling how her two children used to react to her enthusiasm for the small arachnids.
“My kids would get worried when we’d see fliers in a state park visitors center about what to do if you see a tick,” said Valdes. “I would get all excited and start naming the species pictured in the fliers and my kids would look at me, eyes glazed over and say, ‘Mom, what are you talking about?’”
As we walk up four flights of stairs to get ice for her experiment (exercise is very important to Valdes—in fact, she takes classes at the Alumni Field House with colleagues about four times a week), she explains that her kids have matured since then. Her daughter is even majoring in biochemistry at Louisiana State University and working in a research lab that studies tick-borne diseases.
“One day, my daughter was looking for a paper on Google Scholar and one of my publications popped up,” said Valdes. “She thought that was really cool. It was strange to have her see me not just as mom, but starting to appreciate what I do at work too.”
While conducting research is Valdes’s favorite aspect of her job, she keeps busy with numerous administrative duties as well. In her role as assistant lab director, she ensures the lab is always running smoothly by training PhD students, making sure materials are stocked and managing the lab’s budget.
“While it’s not all exciting, it has to be done,” said Valdes. “For example, we have a lot of collaborators worldwide who want to send us diagnostic samples—ticks, fleas, mites—so I have to make sure we have all the proper permits from government entities like the CDC and USDA to import and export material.”
Add repairing refrigerators to the list. As we talk about non-research duties, a repairman shows up to inspect one of the lab’s refrigerators that broke a few days earlier. Valdes has no qualms about getting down on her hands and knees to help diagnose the problem.
After a few interruptions, she refocuses on the experiment she’s running for the day, which will use what’s called a gel electrophoresis apparatus to separate molecules (in this case, proteins extracted from tissue culture cells infected with EMLA, an emerging pathogen) based on size. It forms distinct blue bands on a gel that tells the researchers what they’re looking at. Every step she takes is meticulously recorded in a lab notebook.
Valdes says this is just the beginning of a project looking at how the proteins react to certain antibodies, but hopes to eventually see her hard work translated into practical measures that can improve human health.
“The discovery is the most rewarding part—it’s basically gaining knowledge about something that wasn’t previously known, and that’s really exciting.”