Neurosurgeons practicing surgery
By Michael Haederle

Gifted Learner

UNM Medical Student Samantha Varela Has Her Sights Set on a Career in Neurosurgery

Growing up in Radium Springs, N.M., the daughter of Mexican immigrants, Samantha Varela set her sights on a medical career while she was in high school.

“I became interested in medicine when my sister passed away and my grandpa got cancer right as I was preparing to go to college,” she says. “I had to help my family take my grandpa to his appointments.” Translating on his behalf, she witnessed the warm relationship he developed with his oncologist.

“That’s what drove me into medicine,” says Varela, a fourth-year student in The University of New Mexico School of Medicine who recently was selected for three competitive neurosurgery sub-internships at UNM, the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., and Stanford University.

There are very few Hispanic female neurosurgeons in the U.S., says Christian Bowers, MD, associate professor in the UNM Department of Neurosurgery, who mentored Varela on her neurosurgery rotation and describes her one of the nation’s top neurosurgery residency prospects.

“She’s going to be a glass ceiling-breaker,” he says. “She is quiet and humble but confident. She’s quick to learn, she works super hard and she’s incredibly dedicated – all qualities you want in somebody who’s going to go into neurosurgery.”

Varela showed a determined streak from an early age.

With six kids to feed, her father, a roofer, and mother, a homemaker, struggled to make ends meet, so she took a job working in a feed store and has been financially independent from her family since she was 16.

Varela won an undergraduate scholarship to attend New Mexico State University, where she worked in an organic chemistry laboratory, double-majored in genetics and biology and graduated a year early.

Varela started at the School of Medicine – again with a full scholarship – but before the end of her first year the COVID-19 pandemic forced medical students to learn from home. “It was difficult, in that our clinical experience was taken out,” she says. “We couldn’t shadow different specialties.” But there was a silver lining: “I could study a lot more being in my own cocoon.”

“I ended up shadowing Dr. Bowers at the end of my second year in medical school,” she says. “That’s when I fell in love with neurosurgery. The big thing that drew me to it was the relationship they have with their patients. I love that aspect of it.”

She completed her third-year surgery rotation with honors, which helped when she applied for a month-long neurosurgery sub-internship with the UNM Neurosurgery team.

“You’re supposed to pretty much act like a resident and take care of patients,” she says. “I loved it. Spanish is my first language, so I really care about speaking Spanish to the patients here. That was awesome.”

During her recently completed stint at the Mayo Clinic Varela encountered a more privileged patient population. “Most patients there are wealthy,” she says. “It made me miss UNM a lot. Here, every patient is treated equal, no matter what their financial status.”

Although she’d like to stay UNM, at the moment she’s busy completing applications to 50 neurosurgery residency programs. Interviews will follow this fall and graduating medical students learn where they’ll serve their residencies next March 17 on Match Day.

Varela is already looking ahead to what she hopes to accomplish in her career. “I hope one day I can help other people that are minority like me apply to competitive specialties that seem out of reach to them,” she says.

Her dream is to return to New Mexico to practice.


Samantha Varela, MS IV
Many of our patients are underserved. I come from that background and it’s important to me to give back. I want to stay here to provide the best care.
Samantha Varela, MS IV

“The patients here are so needy – they have no place else to go,” she says. “Many of our patients are underserved. I come from that background and it’s important to me to give back. I want to stay here to provide the best care. I want to stay here because I want to improve the health of New Mexico.”

Categories: Education, School of Medicine, Top Stories