Valeri Vasquez, a fourth-year PhD candidate in the Energy and Resources Group at UC Berkeley, thrives on creativity and exploring new frontiers. Her current research grew out of an interest in how computational models are designed, and the ways alternative mathematical approaches can represent a problem — and its solution — very differently.
She studies the impacts climate change can have on public health, and the use of cutting-edge genetic technologies to mitigate global scourges like malaria, dengue, and Zika. During her doctoral studies, she has bent her passion for environmental issues and fascination with model design toward answering questions about the efficacy of novel interventions for mosquito-borne disease.
“Our objective is to simulate — that is, explore using a computer – the use of these new tools, including CRISPR-based systems, so that we can get a better idea of their dynamics outside the laboratory,” Vasquez explained, referencing the acronym for (C)lustered (R)egularly (I)nterspaced (S)hort (P)alindromic (R)epeats, an approach that allows scientists to introduce new genes into potentially infectious mosquito populations and inhibit their ability to spread disease.
“By using computer models, we can probe the uncertainties of what might happen when replacing wild mosquito populations with mosquitoes that won’t transmit dengue,” she said., “This allows us to test for potential risks without releasing these modified organisms into the wild.”
Vasquez is invigorated by the possibility of expanding the reach of vector-borne disease solutions, noting that “removing the constraints of traditional approaches like insecticide and bed nets could ultimately improve the equity of public health interventions.” Insecticide spraying might not happen frequently enough, or at the right time of year, and bed nets might not be distributed to the correct locations.
In addition to the significant human and ecological benefits of improving health outcomes while spraying less insecticide, she observed the specific scientific area she is using her models to examine has its own draw: “The incredible persistence and ingenuity that it takes to imagine this approach in the first place, then figure out how to implement it and get it to work, is mind-blowing to me. I feel lucky every day to be focused on an issue that is both deeply constructive and creative. It’s engineering at its best.”
Vasquez is also aware of the legal and ethical minefields that can surround genetic modification technologies, even when applied toward objectively good things like eradicating malaria.
“Another part of what makes this area of research so intriguing, frankly, is that it’s challenging on multiple levels,” she said. “To be done right, or — I’d say — at all, requires public buy-in, extensive community engagement, and appropriate governance structures. And that demands empathy, patience, and foresight on all sides.”
Vasquez knows a thing or two about difficult conversations. Prior to graduate school, she served as an advisor on climate change issues, first for the U.S. Department of State and then as part of the international team mediating the development of the much-celebrated Paris Climate Agreement. In those roles, too, she harbored a strong appreciation for out-of-the-box thinking. “The innovative ideas that got countries to common ground were often simple ones: legal frameworks demand a creative mind, too,” she laughed.
She readily acknowledges the unusual nature of her professional and academic path, which launched from an undergraduate degree in English literature. While she perceives a clear connection between explicating James Joyce, negotiating climate agreements, and coding mathematical models, she knows not everyone does.
“I think this somewhat winding road has taught me how useful and unusual interdisciplinarity can be,” she said. “I appreciate, more than I otherwise would, the lessons and skill sets that can be drawn from the humanities into the quantitative sciences, and vice versa.”
Ultimately, Vasquez notes that her personal experiences have “taught me patience — with myself and others — for building new areas of expertise. It’s also imbued me with a mission to break down the barriers that disciplines wall around themselves: if you can put the work in, you will learn. Plus, you never know what new ideas you might bring to the table simply by virtue of being different,” she mused “And having the humility, or maybe the audacity, to grow your learning from the ground up.”