Rupa Valdez

Meet 2018 Forward under 40 Award Recipient Rupa Valdez ’03, MS’07, PhD’12

UW Majors: Industrial And Systems Engineering, French; Certificates In Cultural Anthropology, Business, and European Studies
Age: 37 | Charlottesville, Virginia
Assistant Professor, Department Of Public Health Sciences, University Of Virginia; Founder, Blue Trunk Foundation

Rupa Valdez is a researcher and educator who designs technologies and programs that make it easier for people to take care of their health. In most of her work, she engages with underserved populations, including people who live in rural areas, who identify as minorities, or who live with disabilities.

Valdez researches ergonomics, culture, community, and more — and shares her findings with social scientists, engineers, and medical professionals around the globe. Her work includes projects such as understanding how people around the country use Facebook to communicate about health, designing a mobile app with high school students in Appalachia to enhance youth engagement in health-related community events, and collaborating with a women’s group in South Africa to reduce youth violence.

“Without the breadth of experiences Wisconsin offered, I can’t imagine having the multiple perspectives I now draw on daily.”

Her sought-after research, teaching, and mentorship are influenced by a number of fields — a diversity of perspective that Valdez attributes to her UW experience.

“I often describe my research to students as eclectic because it doesn’t fit neatly into any one discipline,” Valdez says. “[At Wisconsin], I was able to explore disciplines as wide ranging as engineering, nursing, anthropology, French, business, and education. When I think about my work now, I see the interweaving of these different lines of thought.”

Valdez can also boast another UW–Madison connection: Neha Lugo ’06, an attorney with the U.S. State Department and a 2017 Forward under 40 award winner, is her sister.

In addition to her role at the University of Virginia, Valdez’s personal experiences have inspired a nonprofit venture: the Blue Trunk Foundation. A frequent traveler with her own health challenges, Valdez uses a wheelchair to cover long distances. Her organization shares information about accessibility to make it easier for people to travel regardless of their disabilities or health conditions. This allows travelers who need accommodations to plan ahead and better navigate their journeys and destinations.

Blue Trunk’s first resources are set to launch in Charlottesville and Madison, where Valdez still collaborates with UW students and faculty. “Without the breadth of experiences Wisconsin offered,” she says, “I can’t imagine having the multiple perspectives I now draw on daily.”

Q & A

Q&A with Rupa

What are you reading now?
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles and The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee
What is the one thing every UW student must do?
My husband thought I would come up with something more profound than this but: sledding on cafeteria trays.
What advice would you offer to graduating seniors?
There is a lot of serendipity in life. Make plans, but realize that much of what you control is your openness to new people and opportunities, as well as how you react to challenging situations.
What occupies your free time?
Family, friends, reading, and traveling.
What was your first job?
Hostess at Canterbury Books and Café (a Madison institution that I miss).
What is your favorite quote?
“Joy is the ultimate act of defiance.” — Bono
Who is your hero? (or who or what inspires you?)
My three grandmothers (two biological and one not related, but just as real). One taught me patience, one humility, and one perseverance.
What lasting memories do you have of UW–Madison?
The time I spent with friends and mentors who are still part of my life.

Essay

Essay by Rupa

I spent 14 years at Wisconsin, beginning with my undergraduate work in 1998 and ending with my PhD in 2012. Wisconsin is where I grew up, not only professionally, but also personally. It is where I forged deep friendships and met my husband.

One thing that always stands out, however, when I look back on my Wisconsin years, is the way I was able to explore disciplines as wide ranging as engineering, nursing, anthropology, French, business, and education. I am trying to count, but I must have taken classes in more than 25 departments during my time there. When I think about my work now, I can see the interweaving of these different lines of thought. I often describe my research to students as eclectic because it doesn’t fit neatly into any one discipline. Similarly, Blue Trunk has roots in engineering, business, social sciences, and the many travel adventures I had during these years. Without the breadth of experiences Wisconsin offered, I can’t imagine having the multiple perspectives I now draw on daily.

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