Valeria Vásquez was raised in Caracas, Venezuela. Her father is a geologist and shared his love of sci- ence with her starting when she was very little. “I could listen forever to him talk about every single mountain formation while we were on road trips in Venezuela,” she shares. Vásquez also admires her mother, who worked with underprivileged children throughout her career as a kindergar- ten teacher. Vásquez became enamored with the scientific process as an elementary school student. “My school held a yearly science festival where we had to work in teams to develop a scientific project that would be presented at the end of each year,” she says. “My best friend’s mother, who was an engineer, chaperoned us throughout the year and taught us how to apply the scientific method. Formulating hypotheses and designing experi- mental plans hooked me immediately.” Vásquez completed her undergraduate studies at the Universidad Central de Venezuela in Caracas. She then went on to pursue her PhD in the lab of Eduardo Perozo at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, completing her studies in 2008. While she was working in Perozo’s lab, Vásquez met José Faraldo-Gómez and Sudha Chakrapani , with whom she has remained friends over the years. Vásquez served as Faraldo-Gómez’s men- tor while he did wet lab work for a short time in Perozo’s lab. “Valeria is an outstanding scientist with an excellent training in biophysics and biochemistry—but she is also a wonderful person with a very positive disposition and the right tem- perament for a career in science,” he says. “What I remember the most about spending time with her in the lab is how careful, thoughtful, and hard- working she is. [Also] her homemade arepas are phenomenal, particularly combined with copious amounts of Rioja.” Chakrapani recalls her time working with Vásquez fondly. “Valeria was a lot of fun to work with. She is a well-rounded person, brilliant, meticulous, and extremely passionate about science, politics, and her family,” she says. “She is very insightful, full of new ideas, and absolutely relentless when it comes to trying new approaches to study a very difficult scientific problem.” Biophysicist in Profile VALERIA VÁSQUEZ
For her postdoctoral research, she worked in the lab of Miriam B. Goodman at Stanford Univer- sity. “We identified arachidonic acid-containing phospholipids as crucial modulators of touch sensitivity in C. elegans touch receptor neurons,” Vásquez says. She is now an assistant professor in the Depart- ment of Physiology at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis. “My current research is centered on understanding ion channel function of mechanosensitive channels using two main avenues: (1) in vivo approaches to study the effect of bioactive lipids on channel function using the animal model C. elegans , and (2) in vitro biochemical and biophysical approaches to elucidate the mechanisms of ion channel activa- tion and identify lipids that directly modulate their function,” she explains. Vásquez credits several people in her life for helping lead her to this particular area of study. The first was her husband, Julio Cordero-Morales . “Since we were in college he was — and still is — super passionate about ion channels and excitable cells. He would always tell our trainees, ‘There is nothing more exciting than looking at an enzyme to work in real time,’ like we do when we patch clamp,” she says. “My friend and collaborator Boris Martinac taught me how to patch clamp spheroplasts while studying mechanosensitive ion channels. My PhD advisor Eduardo Perozo taught me that without dynamics, structures are just snapshots. Miriam Goodman taught me that the in vivo context always matters.” The most rewarding aspect of her work is the sharing and exchange of information. “I get to learn from everyone, whether they are in my field or not,” she explains. “What I like the most is discussing ideas with labmates and colleagues to challenge and/or postulate hypotheses. It is very rewarding to find something new and exciting, whether it goes with or against my hypothesis.” Vásquez faced challenges related to her work– family balance during her postdoctoral fellowship. “The biggest challenge so far was coming back to the lab after a two-month maternity leave.