Passing the Test: Aliki Valdes

By Frances Badgett

When Aliki Valdes transferred into Western from Whatcom Community College, she knew she was interested in biology—she had enjoyed biology classes in high school—but she had no way of knowing that she would graduate with a biology degree and lab experience into a global pandemic and begin using her degree right away. As part of the Northwest Laboratory’s effort to rapid-test for COVID, Valdes, along with several Western students, worked alongside her professors and medical professionals to test samples.

“We would put all the samples in batches. If a batch tested positive, we would pull the samples out and find it,” Valdes says.

Northwest Laboratory expanded from just a few machines to several, and needed experienced lab technicians to process the tests. Luckily, Western had plenty of students educated in the exact process Northwest Laboratory needed. Western faculty and students from chemistry and biology pulled together in a community effort. At the time, testing was the only tool available to fight the illness.

“I answered an email asking for students with molecular testing techniques. I knew I could do the work,” Valdes says.

“It was a surreal experience—I worked along with the professors who had just taught me as an undergraduate. I went from learning in the lab and classroom to graduating and becoming their colleague,” Valdes says.

During the day, the lab was busy, but at night it was lonely. “The whole pandemic was isolating, but the lab isn’t as busy at night. It was isolating.”

Despite handling one of the most infectious viruses to emerge in history, she felt perfectly safe at the lab. “I felt safer in the lab than I did the grocery store.”

When she reflects on her time at Western, she remembers those lab classes that prepared her for this historic moment. “The classes were really personal. I learned processes in those classes that I use now in my work. I’m so happy I chose Western.”

Valdes is now at the University of Chicago studying Hepatitis C and participating in the National Institutes of Health preparation program, a program that helps underrepresented people in science. This fall she will begin a PhD program at Northwestern University.

“It’s so important to support biology at Western,” she says. “Being underfunded affected me at times with class size. Proper funding can make a huge difference.”