Susie Valenzuela’s knack for crunching numbers has taken her from New Mexico State University all the way to the University of Washington, where she recently launched her career as a statistician working to advance the prevention, detection and treatment of HIV infection and AIDS.
Valenzuela earned two degrees from NMSU, including a master’s degree in applied statistics in December 2019, before relocating to Seattle in March to join the University of Washington/Fred Hutch Center for AIDS Research, one of 19 research centers in the United States funded by the National Institutes of Health to support multidisciplinary research aimed at reducing the burden of HIV nationally and globally.
“My first day on the job was March 16th, and it’s just been an amazing experience so far, despite everything going on right now,” said Valenzuela, a first-generation college student who grew up in the rural southern New Mexico community of Chaparral and briefly lived on the island of Maui in Hawaii after high school.
“This position fulfills Susie’s career goal of applying statistical knowledge to important medical research,” said Chris Sroka, an applied statistics assistant professor at NMSU who worked with Valenzuela on her master’s thesis. “I think this is another success story for our program, and it demonstrates that our graduates can successfully compete for statistical positions at the national level.”
Valenzuela’s journey to Washington state started with a fondness for math, an interest that eventually led her to NMSU, where she first pursued a bachelor’s degree in mathematics with an emphasis in actuarial science, a program that prepares students for a mathematical career in insurance and risk management.
“I was looking at three universities, and NMSU was the only one that offered a degree in actuarial science,” she said. “So, that kind of sealed the deal.”
But she also had another reason for wanting to attend NMSU. “I needed to stay closer to home,” she said, “because I was caring for my mom, who at the time was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.”
By 2017, Valenzuela earned her first degree from NMSU, having worked tirelessly to balance being a full-time undergraduate with caring for her mother and working between classes to make ends meet. It was a challenging time, she said, “but I absolutely enjoyed school."
She added, “I really enjoyed my teachers. I think the teacher either makes or breaks a class. And I was very fortunate to have really good instructors throughout most of my college career.”
After graduation, Valenzuela set forth on a path leading to the field of applied statistics.
She first considered pursuing a second bachelor’s degree, this time in computer science, after concluding that a career in actuarial science wouldn’t have been as fulfilling as she wanted. But one of her math professors, Tony Wang, encouraged her to look into NMSU’s applied statistics graduate program in the College of Business. After meeting with the program’s director, Robert Steiner, she became interested in the field and started the two-year program in August 2017.
Valenzuela’s first class with NMSU associate professor Charlotte Gard, a biostatistician whose research centers on cancer risk prediction and health disparities, left a lasting impression on her, she said.
“Dr. Gard just blew my mind,” Valenzuela said, “because I didn’t know that as a statistician, you could do things like that. That’s when I realized how important statisticians were and how their work can apply to so many different things.”
In spring 2018, at Gard’s request, Valenzuela applied for a summer internship at the Seattle-based Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She was offered the position and started working that summer at Fred Hutch, where she received her first professional experience as a research statistician. She also was fortunate enough to connect with Sarah Holte, her current supervisor at the Center for AIDS Research, with whom she stayed in contact with after her internship.
By fall 2019, Valenzuela completed the master’s program and her thesis, which centered on disparities in breast cancer screenings along the U.S.-Mexico border, and that December, she graduated with her second degree from NMSU.
“My family was proud of me,” she said, “because they saw all my hard work pay off.”
In January, she learned of an open position for a research consultant/statistician at the Center for AIDS Research and quickly applied. The following month, she interviewed for the position and, soon after, she received an offer for the job. She accepted and began making plans to relocate to Seattle.
“I am thrilled for Susie and excited to see what the future holds for her,” said Gard, who also worked with Valenzuela on her master’s thesis.
In her new role, Valenzuela assists primary investigators from the University of Washington with data analysis on research related to HIV/AIDS, she said. She’s also currently working on a project that’s looking at HIV infection rates among couples in Kenya.
“I’ll have multiple projects that I work on like that,” she said.
For more information about NMSU’s applied statistics graduate program, visit https://business.nmsu.edu/departments/economics/.