Hear us out for a second: If you could be any superhero, who would you choose? Wonder Woman? Trini the Yellow Power Ranger? She-Ra? Well, here at The Everygirl we are resoundingly, emphatically, hands-down choosing Dr. Valencia Walker. Once you read her career profile, we are sure you’ll feel the same way.
Not only does Dr. Walker spend her days (and long nights) providing critical care to babies as a neonatologist, she is also an assistant professor of her division at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. A career in medicine was not initially what Dr. Walker dreamed of. She thought she wanted to be an archaeologist but realized she “didn’t want to be in dirt all the time.” It took the guidance of her mother and an amazing high school teacher to make her realize she had an instinctual knack for science. “I fell in love with my biology classes and couldn’t believe how easy it seemed for me.” Armed with a clearer vision of her talents and goals, Dr. Walker worked extremely hard on her path to becoming a doctor, going straight from undergraduate studies to medical school with little time between the two.
In addition to saving babies and teaching the world’s future doctors, Dr. Walker is fueled by her underlying passion for and committment to helping people, particularly in underserved and impoverished communities. A very brief summary of her extracurricular activities includes being the current President of the Association of Black Women Physicians, volunteering as a faculty advisor for Haiti’s only critical care hospital, providing education and mobile care to indigent communities in Tanzania, and participating in research projects related to her field. Of her passion, Dr. Walker says, “my parents instilled in me a desire to help others so it comes naturally.”
With all these accomplishments and success, Dr. Walker is truly an inspiration. However, her warmth and humble attitude are equally as inspiring. “I truly believe all my success is a result of people who were willing to reach out and help me. I feel I have a lot to pay forward to others.” She admits that the NICU has its ups and downs but the bottom line is that she tries to make every day about “helping, encouraging and inspiring people.”
Oh and Dr. Walker’s favorite way to unwind? Training for a triathlon. Clearly she’s a superhero.
Name: Valencia Walker
Age: Technically not a Millennial 😉
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Title 1: Assistant Clinical Professor Associate Medical Director, Newborn Nursery Division of Neonatology l Department of Pediatrics David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center l Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA
Title 2: President, 2013-2015 Association of Black Women Physicians
Educational Background: Undergrad – Florida A&M University (HBCU) Medical – Emory University School of Medicine Pediatrics Training – UT Memphis/LeBonheur Children’s Hospital & St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital Neonatology Training – University of Cincinnati and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and Medical Center
Did you always know you wanted to go into medicine?
No, not exactly. I thought I wanted to be an archaelogist, but I realized I didn’t want to be in dirt all the time! I also wanted to help people, in part because that was the example my parents always demonstrated.
What drew you to medicine?
My mother was a nurse so she encouraged me to consider becoming a doctor. I had an amazing chemistry teacher in high school who helped me get into the E.E. Just Summer Science Program at Morehouse School of Medicine. I fell in love with my Biology classes and couldn’t believe how easy Biology seemed for me. Yes, I voluntarily spent my summer taking science classes that didn’t count for credit!
You went straight from undergrad to med school with only about a three month break in between. How did you manage to take the MCAT and apply for med school in such a short period of time? Did you also maintain a job during that time?
Applying for medical school takes over a year. I started preparing as a sophomore. I took my MCAT by my junior year. I did have part-time jobs throughout the process which helped me pay for MCAT prep courses, application fees, travel costs for interviews, etc. I went straight to medical school after graduating from college, but I wouldn’t advise it. I think it’s important to have some life experiences of your own before tackling medical school.
How did you decide what kind of medicine you wanted to practice?
Once again, my mom was an influence and suggested I consider neonatology. I had always done volunteer work with helping children, but I never thought I would want to take care of sick children. It seemed too sad. However, as a third year medical student, I loved my pediatrics rotation, especially the sickest kids. I did an additional two months of neonatology as a fourth year medical student. I enjoyed the excitement of critical care, and I had great teachers/attendings who helped me understand it was okay to feel conflicted about the significant ethical issues in neonatology.
Explain to us what exactly neonatology is and how it differs from pediatrics.
In neonatology, you take care of any baby (usually six months old or younger) that requires critical care. Most often, it is babies that are born prematurely. However, I also take care of babies born with holes in their hearts and babies with very rare medical problems. I work very closely with the OB doctors when a woman has a high risk pregnancy. I am always in the hospital. I’m not the doctor you go to for your immunizations or school physicals. Actually, I’m the doctor most people never want to meet because it means something is very, very wrong with their baby.
The neonatology unit must be very intense and stressful, yet motivating and inspiring at the same time. How do you keep a balanced perspective?
The NICU is definitely all of those things. It takes a tremendous amount of emotional and intellectual energy. There are days when I come home and just enjoy silence. No alarms beeping, no pagers, no constant barrage of critical decisions to make. Just peace and quiet. Likewise, having people I can trust to talk about the challenges and miracles is essential! Many of my colleagues are my friends so they really understand. At UCLA, we also have the privilege of caring for healthy newborn babies. It is wonderful to share in “normal” births with happy and excited families.
Do you have a favorite success story?
I have had too many to pick one! That’s why I keep doing this job!
You are involved in a multitude of extra curricular projects from being a consultant to sitting on the boards of several organizations to conducting research projects (and that’s a severely shortened list!). How do you decide what to get involved with? How important is it to your career to be involved with these projects?
As I mentioned, my parents instilled in me the desire to help others so it comes naturally. Plus, I have a hard time sitting still! Seriously, I truly believe all my success is a result of people who were willing to reach out and help me. I feel I have a lot to pay forward to others. If I find something that rings true with my core values, and I have a way to make time in my schedule, then it’s happening! With my career, UCLA expects their faculty members to excel in their medical care and their commitments to the local, national and international communities.
Over the years you’ve volunteered in Haiti, Guatemala, and Tanzania. Tell us about those experiences and what you took away from them.
In all of those places, I saw incredibly tragic situations, but they were always juxtaposed with breathtakingly beautiful things too. Specifically, working with Village Life Outreach Project in Tanzania was a dream come true. I grew tremendously as a person. It also confirmed my passion for international mission work. Guatemala was hard; I may never go back there. I absolutely loved India, but the pollution made it impossible for me to stay healthy. Haiti was compelling. In fact, I am working to establish a permanent relationship with a critical care hospital in Port-au-Prince. Now, I have to finally become fluent in French (whenever I find the time, I have a goal to become fluent in five languages)!
You are an assistant clinical professor at the UCLA School of Medicine and a practicing doctor. How do you do both jobs simultaneously? Take us through your average day.
What I love most about my job is NO day is ever “average.” I don’t punch a clock. I just work until it’s done OR I’m too tired to keep working! Some days I am all about teaching. Other days I am writing grants and performing experiments in a lab. Then, there are the days when I am “running codes” to save a baby’s life. Some of my best days are when I get to tell parents that they are finally able to take their baby home for the first time. Really, as corny as it may sound, I try to make every day about helping, encouraging and inspiring people.
You are currently the President of the Association of Black Women Physicians. Can you tell us about their mission and the work you do to support it?
I’m thrilled you asked about ABWP. It has become a HUGE part of my life since becoming president. Our organization was started over 30 years ago by women who wanted to help each other succeed in a career traditionally dominated by men. They also wanted to provide scholarships to deserving students that were committed to becoming doctors. Lastly, and most importantly, they wanted to empower women to take charge of their health, especially those living in traditionally underserved communities. As the current president, I am charged with fulfilling these key goals/mission of ABWP and continuing the amazing legacy of service this organization has provided for more than three decades. For example, ABWP has given out over $300,000 in scholarships. The organization has also been awarded multiple grants over the years for community outreach programs addressing Breast Cancer, Obesity, Diabetes, Heart Disease, Domestic Violence, & Adolescent Health just to name a few. Through it all, ABWP has been a sisterhood of support and service to thousands of people. So, I have some high heels to fill, but I am fortunate to stand on the tall shoulders of some of the most incredible women I have EVER met! They are the antithesis to Real Housewives, Love & Hip Hop, Basketball Wives and so many of the other negative stereotypes that play out on reality TV shows. Whenever I start to doubt myself, I reach out to this amazing network of women to receive encouragement, support and rejuvenation. As I have been inspired by the women I met when I joined ABWP, I am committed to living a life that inspires others. I am far from perfect, but I am grateful for the opportunities to be better. Becoming president of ABWP has absolutely been an incredible opportunity to become better!
What advice do you have for those that may be considering a career in medicine? What about for our readers who might already have a bachelors degree in an unrelated discipline?
If you are considering medicine as a career, find doctors that will let you follow them around. Try to figure out if this is a commitment you really want to make. Medicine is not as lucrative of a career as people think. You have to do it for the right reasons AND be able to survive the extremely competitive nature of training without losing your soul. Having a bachelors degree in an unrelated discipline is often a good thing, especially engineering and psychology. You just have to go back and pick up any prerequisite courses for medical school that your major did not require.
Your resume is chock-full of accomplishments and awards. What characteristics or skills do you think are most responsible for your success?
1. The refusal to quit/give up 2. Being accountable, disciplined, intelligent, organized (when necessary) and responsible 3. The ability to focus and block out distractions 4. Willing to make the most out of opportunities given 5. The family and friends who love me unconditionally!
What advice would you give your 23-year old self?
Happiness and success are so much more than a grade point average. Don’t be afraid to live an unconventional life. Trust yourself and follow your dreams (even when no one else understands why they are your dreams).
Dr. Valencia Walker is The Everygirl…
Be bold with your kindness.
If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and what would you order?
I would order homemade ice cream and eat with Maya Angelou because “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” inspired me as a high school student.
Small hot chocolate made with almond milk and no whipped cream. Coffee tastes awful to me.
Favorite Way to Unwind?
Triathlon training in the morning (swim/bike/run) followed by lounging at the beach reading a good book until the NFL night game.
All expense paid year long sabbatical (three months in Costa Rica followed by three months in Paris, two months in Barcelona, two months touring Asia and two months traveling throughout the Caribbean countries of my choosing). I just don’t believe I could go that long without working!