Meet the Researcher: A. Catalina Vélez-Ortega

By Yishane Lee

2018 Emerging Research Grants (ERG) awardee A. Catalina Vélez-Ortega received a master’s in biology from the University of Antioquia, Colombia, and a doctorate in physiology from the University of Kentucky, where she completed postdoctoral training and is now an assistant professor in the department of physiology.

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IN HER WORDS:

TRPA1 is an ion channel known for its role as an “irritant sensor” in pain-sensing neurons (nerve cells). Noise exposure leads to the production of some cellular “irritants” that activate TRPA1 channels in the inner ear. The role of TRPA1 channels has been a puzzling project, with most experiments leaving more questions to pursue. My current project seeks to uncover how TRPA1 activation modifies cochlear mechanics and hearing sensitivity, in order to find new therapeutic targets to prevent hearing loss or tinnitus.

My father, our town’s surgeon, fueled my desire to learn. When I asked him how the human heart works, he called the butcher, got a pig’s heart, and we dissected it together. I was about 5 when I learned how the heart’s chambers are connected and how valves work. He also set up an astronomy class at home with a flashlight, globe, and ball when I asked, “Why does the moon change shape?” My father’s excitement kept my curiosity from fading as I grew older. That eager-to-learn personality now drives my career in science and teaching.

My training in biomedical engineering guided my interest into hearing science. The field of inner ear research mixes physics and mechanics with molecular biology and genetics in a way I find extremely attractive. Analytics also intrigues me. People who work with me know how complex my calendar and spreadsheets can get. I absolutely love logging all kinds of data and looking for correlations. I also like to plan ahead—passport renewal 10 years from now? Already in my calendar!

I take dance lessons and participate in flash mobs and other dance performances. But I used to be extremely shy. As a child I simply could not look anyone in the eye when talking to them. I was also terrified of being onstage. It was only after college that I decided to finally correct the problem. Interestingly, taking sign language lessons was very helpful. Sign language forced me to stare at people to be able to communicate. It was terrifying at first, but it started to feel very natural after just a few months.

Vélez-Ortega’s 2018 ERG grant was generously funded by cochlear implant manufacturer Cochlear Americas.

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