KALAMAZOO. Mich.—A Western Michigan University researcher is one of a select group in the nation to receive a distinguished award for her work that may lead to a better understanding of how to repair traumatic brain injuries or progressive memory loss.
Dr. Erika Calvo-Ochoa is one of 40 researchers in the nation—and the first at WMU—to be awarded a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship in biology.
With her $138,000 award, Calvo-Ochoa is studying the zebrafish olfactory bulb to understand how the brain functions and recovers from damage. Unlike humans, zebrafish can repair brain lesions through cell regeneration.
"By learning how this process works," Calvo-Ochoa says, "we may be able to learn how this might work in the human brain when there is some form of traumatic brain injury" or a condition such as Alzheimer's disease.
"The NSF fellowship is a tremendous opportunity for Erika," says Dr. Christine Byrd-Jacobs, professor of biological sciences and Calvo-Ochoa's faculty mentor.
"Erika's project will help us gain new knowledge about how the adult brain can regain function after injury. She is exploring the process of regeneration and recovery using a fish model."
Longtime passion drives discovery
Calvo-Ochoa has been interested in science and how the body works since she was a child.
"As a first grader, I remember going to my school library and finding books on the human body and cells. I would read and study those every day. I did not come from a scientific family, but I knew this was what I wanted to do."
Indeed, she's the first one on this path in many ways. She is the first person at WMU to receive the NSF research postdoc fellowship. She also is the first woman, Latina and immigrant to be so honored at the University.
Calvo-Ochoa only recently became a resident of the United States. Before that, she’d held a couple different visas that enabled her to work as a research assistant while her residency application was in process. Once she became a resident, she applied for and won the NSF fellowship.
"I am so humbled and grateful to the National Science Foundation and to Dr. Byrd-Jacobs for giving me this incredible opportunity," Calvo-Ochoa says. "For me, personally, it means everything. It's the chance to get back into the research lab, and it's the chance to show students from diverse backgrounds that they can be scientists, too."
At WMU, she's become an inspiring figure because of her zeal for learning, her humility and commitment to promoting diversity in STEM fields—science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
"It is important to me to be able to inspire Latinas both in the USA and in Mexico, my homeland, to work hard, to pursue their dreams and to know it is possible to be a successful Latina in STEM," Calvo-Ochoa says.
"It's not been easy. But I share that openly with my students and those I mentor, so that I can encourage them to not give up."
Reaching beyond the laboratory
Her proposal includes an outreach component, and she is excited to work through existing programs at WMU, such as the College Assistance Migrant Program funded by the U.S. Department of Education to mentor and inspire young Latino students, just as she was mentored at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico while earning her bachelor's degree in biomedical research and her doctorate in neuroscience.
"It was very competitive and challenging, but thanks to many great mentors, I got outstanding scientific training. I aspire to be this kind of mentor to young students to show them they can do research, too."
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