Maria “Heidi” Villalba’s childhood, background drive her to be a mentor for veterinary students in research development.
Approximately 66 miles southwest of Amarillo lies Dimmitt, Texas, the hometown of Maria “Heidi” Villalba. Agriculture reigns supreme in this little town. It is the place Villalba will always call home, where her father worked for many years at a local feedyard and now works at a local farm, and her mother still works for Cargill Meat Solutions in nearby Friona and has for more than 20 years.
From a young age, agriculture shaped her life and was a focal point of her upbringing. During her high school years, she was involved in stock shows and the Dimmitt chapter of the National FFA Organization (FFA). It was the guidance of her mentor, a high school agriculture teacher, that encouraged and motivated her to become a first-generation college student.
Now, after years of hard work through undergraduate and graduate degrees, and as a post-doctoral research fellow, she finds herself with an extraordinary opportunity to give back to what was so formative during her childhood. She will now advance research discovery that will benefit animal, human and ecosystem health. In her role as a research assistant professor at the Texas Tech University School of Veterinary Medicine (SVM) in Amarillo, Villalba also serves as an inspiration and role model for school children. She began her duties on Sept. 1.
“I'm thrilled for this opportunity to help with our school's mission, providing advanced graduate education and research,” Villalba said. “I'm excited to stay in Amarillo and continue my passion in teaching, research and mentoring in veterinary medicine.”
Villalba is a pharmaceutical scientist with extensive experience in animal modeling for diabetes and related metabolic diseases and stroke. The School of Veterinary Medicine provides her with advanced resources to develop a transformative research program. She will also work with other scientists with related expertise. Her goal is to contribute to new preclinical drug discoveries which could translate to potential novel drug options for patients who, as of now, do not have a therapeutic choice to extend life expectancy.
“Dr. Villalba lives and breaths our purpose as a School,” said Guy Loneragan, dean of the SVM. “She truly understands the needs of rural and regional communities. She also knows how to inspire school students to imagine and pursue the opportunities that college and a career in research and discovery bring. Dr. Villalba will do great things at Texas Tech, and we are so lucky that she joined our team.”
Early in her career, she developed a passion and love for teaching and training graduate students. As she steps into her new role at the SVM, Villalba wants to continue her pursuit to inspire and mentor those who have her same drive to make a difference in the world through discovery.
She will bring her expertise obtained over the years and apply it to the SVM's doctorate program in One Health Sciences. She will work closely with Annelise Nguyen, the Associate Dean for Research and Professor of Toxicology. Together, they will develop opportunities for students to discover areas of research that will benefit animal, human and ecosystem health.
Texas Tech University has implemented an institutional change in creating a research incubator by placing cross-discipline investigators together; as a result, Villalba and Nguyen are the recipients of this institutional change.
“Beyond our interest in mentoring the first-generation students, we are currently collaborating on the development of anticancer drugs targeting hard-to-treat tumors like triple-negative breast cancer,” Nguyen said.
A cross-discipline of a board-certified toxicologist with a background in cancer research and a pharmaceutical scientist with a background in animal modeling will transform the initial leads of compounds into a new target for hard-to-hit cancer.
“We are fortunate to have Dr. Villalba joining our team, aligning well with our core values in community, integrity, kindheartedness, grit, and inspiration,” said Nguyen.
Villalba earned her bachelor's degree (2010) and master's degree in biology (2013) from West Texas A&M University and her doctorate in pharmaceutical sciences from Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC) in Amarillo in 2018.
Villalba spent the past three years as a postdoctoral research fellow at the TTUHSC in Amarillo. Through a grant by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), she investigated the effects of age and sex on tobacco smoke and e-cigarette toxicity at the blood-brain barrier and on ischemic stroke outcomes.
Before that, she was a recipient of the Killgore Student Research Grant, where she studied the development of multiplex real-time PCR of bovine respiratory disease pathogens while at West Texas A&M University.
She is a member of the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA), the American Society of Addiction Medicine, the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (ASPET), the Los Barrios de Amarillo, Texas Association of Chicanos in Higher Education and many more.
Villalba joins a growing and vibrant team of faculty and staff at the SVM. She is thrilled to begin mentoring and teaching students through research that will benefit Texas, the nation and the world.
About the School of Veterinary Medicine
Thanks to the generosity of Amarillo and communities across Texas and the commitment of legislators from around the state, the Texas Tech University School of Veterinary Medicine in Amarillo was established in 2018. In March 2021, the school was granted the all-important status of Provisional Accreditation from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) Council on Education (COE). The inaugural class started in August 2021.
The School of Veterinary Medicine recruits and selects students with deep life experiences in rural and regional communities. Its curriculum is focused on the competencies and skills necessary for success in practice types that support these communities. Texas Tech's innovative and cost-efficient model partners with the wider community of veterinary practices across the state to provide real-world experiential learning.