Professor constructs career from interest in math

From the beginning of her life, Vanessa Valentin enjoyed math and construction. Rather than homework, math problems were more like fun and challenging puzzles for her. Her father was a civil engineer, and that inspired her even more to pursue a similar field.

Now, Valentin is an assistant professor in the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of New Mexico. Originally from Puerto Rico, Valentin felt a special connection with UNM.

“Because I’m Hispanic, and UNM being a Hispanic-Serving Institution, I felt an opportunity to serve my own community and to have a positive impact on UNM’s diverse and non-traditional student population, that was important to me,” Valentin said.

Now, Valentin focuses on interdisciplinary research. She enjoys applying multiple fields of study to an area of concentration. While some of her research concerns risk and project management in construction, Valentin collaborates with a variety of professors in different departments.

“My research is really focused not only in construction engineering and management, which is my main discipline, but also I’ve been collaborating with water resources and geotechnical engineering faculty and faculty in the Department of Economics and Department of Math and Statistics to study the quantification of factors for decision-making in projects,” Valentin said.

“I want to get out and tell the students ‘you really are able to do this,'” Valentin said.”

In addition, Valentin participates in many other activities that help advance underrepresented groups in STEM fields. She is the faculty outreach coordinator for The Center for Water and the Environment. CWE’s educational goals include attracting and engaging students from kindergarten through 12th grade in STEM disciplines. The children get to experience water research in a variety of ways, including tangible activities and a dual credit class.

The Center for the Water and Environment’s Water Activity Vehicle Experience (WAVE) brings educational learning about water to high school students.

“The center, directed by Dr. Kerry Howe, has developed what we call the WAVE trailer – the Water Activity Vehicle Experience – which is loaded with a bunch of hands-on water-related activities that we take around to schools and other outreach events for the kids,” Valentin said.

One of the most exciting projects that Valentin is a part of is the The Innovation Academy for Women of the Americas. This program is a collaboration between UNM, The Autonomous University of Yucatan and La Salle University.

“It is an initiative to empower young women, mostly from vulnerable groups and backgrounds, and to prepare them in the areas of research and project management. The program offered a life-changing opportunity for students where they worked in interdisciplinary teams,” Valentin said.

During the month long program, students learn about STEM and architecture. In its second year, The Innovation Academy was hosted by La Salle University and held in Mexico City this summer with 17 students including two from UNM and 15 from around Mexico.

The Innovation Academy for Women in the Americas gathered in Mexico City this year to learn about research and project management. Vanessa Valentin, a faculty member at UNM, helps facilitate the event.

Valentin was in charge of the first week of the program. She spoke about project management including time management, scope definition, scheduling, and cost estimate. But, the students learned about much more.

“They were trained in other aspects of research, for example performing a literature search, simulation tools and design of experiments,” Valentin said. “They also attended many seminars from experts, mostly women scientists, and others, related to their own work. There were a lot of inspiring role models for students during that period of time.”

During the second week, the students were given a situation where they created a proposal and presented their work at the end of the month. This year’s proposal concerned the effects that ecosystem restoration would have on public health.

Valentin said she benefitted from participating in The Academy.

“It was great to learn from the student participants, their very diverse backgrounds and disciplines” Valentin said. “I also got inspired by them. They were full of energy and very outspoken on the problems they wanted to fix in their own communities,”

Valentin enjoys working with programs that help support underrepresented students like this because the support offered to them is invaluable.

“What I consistently see is that we might have students that are very interested in STEM, but maybe because of their background or things that they’ve seen or experienced, they don’t think they are able to pursue a STEM career successfully,” Valentin said. “I think these programs are essential for building up that confidence and letting students know that they are supported.”