Dr. Erika Calvo-OchoaDr. Erika Calvo-Ochoa

Dr. Erika Calvo-Ochoa of the Hope College biology and neuroscience faculty has received two multi-year external grants in support of her ongoing investigation of how the nervous system heals itself.

Together totaling more than $500,000, the awards from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Kenneth H. Campbell Foundation for Neurological Research are helping fund research focused specifically on neural regeneration in the olfactory system, which is responsible for the sense of smell.  The NSF award is also supporting development of additional programming integrating the research that will include a year-long neuroscience research-based course for Hope students and a bilingual summer camp for local Latinx K-12 students.

Calvo-Ochoa’s research uses zebrafish, but the ultimate goal is to develop knowledge that can someday help humans recover following brain trauma.

“We are enthusiastic about this research because it will increase our understanding of regulators and processes that orchestrate neural regeneration and recovery in the adult brain and will advance the largely uncharted field of neural regeneration,” said Calvo-Ochoa, who is an assistant professor of biology and neuroscience. “This might provide clues that could potentially be used for stimulating brain regenerative strategies in other vertebrates.”

Zebrafish, which are part of the minnow family, aren’t as unlikely a stand-in for human beings as they might seem.  Their olfactory system, Calvo-Ochoa noted, is analogous to those of other vertebrates — including mammals — and regenerates quickly, making them an efficient model to study.  In addition, about 70% of their genes are also found in humans.

The NSF grant is providing $452,000 in support for the next three years as Calvo-Ochoa and her team seek to determine the molecular and cellular factors that underpin the olfactory system’s regeneration and recovery following brain injury.  The Kenneth Campbell Foundation is providing $60,000 for the next two years to help the researchers do a deep dive into the implications of brain degeneration and olfactory loss, and Parkinson’s Disease in particular.

“Olfactory dysfunction is present in 96% of individuals with Parkinson’s Disease, but the relationship between these two conditions is not well understood,” Calvo-Ochoa said.

“An important drawback for advancing the field of olfactory recovery is the limited ability of the adult mammalian nervous system to regenerate after injury and disease,” she said.  “We will address this gap by leveraging the regenerative abilities of zebrafish to study neural repair and regeneration in the olfactory system.”

The majority of the work will be conducted in Calvo-Ochoa’s laboratory in the college’s A. Paul Schaap Science Center, with Hope students working alongside her as mentored collaborative researchers during both the school year and summer.  The students in the year-long, research-based course sequence will participate as well, and develop research skills themselves through activities such as collecting data for the project, present their results at the college’s Celebration of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity (CURCA) and prepare a manuscript.

The summer camp for local Latinx K-12 students will be offered in collaboration with ExploreHope Academic Outreach, which annually offers multiple summer science camps as well as programming during the school year for K-12 students.  The support from the NSF will include full scholarships for the students in the camp, which will be offered during the following three summers.

Calvoa-Ochoa, who is originally from Mexico, will lead the bilingual camp along with student researchers from her lab and ExploreHope.  “Our goal is to attract local Latinx youth to STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] careers by establishing connections with a bilingual Latina professor and undergraduate researchers by fostering community-wide engagement with biology research,” she said.

Calvo-Ochoa has broad training in molecular, cellular and behavioral neuroscience in diverse animal models. Her expertise focuses on studying mechanisms of loss and recovery of brain plasticity and function following damage and disease.

In 2022, the International Brain Research Organization (IBRO) presented her with its Rising Stars Award, which supports the research needs of early career neuroscience faculty from diverse and/or underrepresented backgrounds.  The external support that she has received for her research also includes a previous grant from the Kenneth Campbell Foundation to develop a novel model to study olfactory loss related to Parkinson’s Disease.

Calvo-Ochoa joined the Hope faculty in 2020 after holding a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship (NSF PRFB) at Western Michigan University and completing a research fellowship at RIKEN Center for Brain Science in Tokyo, Japan. She completed her B.Sc. in biomedical research and her Ph.D. in neuroscience at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) in 2008 and 2015, respectively. She has had several research articles published in refereed professional journals, including the Journal of Neuroscience, International Journal of Molecular Sciences, and Cell Tissue and Research.

She teaches courses in neuroscience, neuroanatomy and neurophysiology, and advanced neuroscience research. In her three years at Hope, she has mentored 21 undergraduate researchers, who have been very successful at earning external research fellowships and travel awards.