A. Catalina Vélez-Ortega, Postdoctoral Scholar

Growing up in the small, rural town of Dabeiba, Colombia, Cata Vélez-Ortega’s interest in and curiosity about the sciences were fueled by her father, the town’s general surgeon. “When I first asked him how the human heart works, he called the butcher in town, got a pig’s heart, and we dissected it together. He explained how all the chambers were connected and how the valves worked. I was extremely fascinated! I also remember him setting up an entire astronomy class one evening at home with a flashlight, a globe, and a ball in response to my question, ‘Why does the moon change shape?’”

Vélez-Ortega graduated high school at the age of 15 and moved to Medellín, Colombia, to study Biomedical Engineering.  During her time there, she studied abroad at The Ohio State University. “I had the opportunity to work in a research laboratory for the first time. I worked with a very talented graduate student, who suggested that I apply to graduate school. I had never considered the possibility of going to graduate school before then, but the idea of working in a research environment for a living became very attractive.”

After graduating with her Bachelor’s, Vélez-Ortega joined a clinical research laboratory. “Beyond any doubt, my time in this laboratory not only strengthened my knowledge in genetics and molecular biology but also taught me how to think critically as a research scientist.” She earned her M.S. in Biology while studying rare immunological diseases known as Primary Immunodeficiencies.

Vélez-Ortega came to work at the University of Kentucky in the laboratory of Dr. Francesc Martí, and it was while working there that she heard of the Integrated Biomedical Sciences program. She decided to pursue her Ph.D. here and ended up finishing her graduate work and continuing her postdoctoral training in the lab of Dr. Gregory Frolenkov in the department of Physiology.

Vélez-Ortega’s research focuses on “proteins that are important for normal hearing and for protection against noise-induced hearing loss. The sensory cells in the inner ear are called ‘hair cells’ because they have structures that look like small hairs. Sound vibrations reaching the inner ear cause these ‘hairs’ to move. Our sense of hearing exhibits extraordinary sensitivity, and this is achieved because the hair cells can detect even the smallest movement (even a movement 3 million times smaller than the thickness of a fingernail!). During my current postdoctoral research project I found that these ‘hairs’ can change their shape depending on whether they can sense movement or not. This type of plasticity ─which had never been described before─ could be the underlying mechanism used by the inner ear hair cells to maintain their amazing sensitivity.”

More about Vélez-Ortega’s work can be found in her 3 Minute Thesis Competition video. “I highly encourage all graduate students to do it. The impact this competition had in my career has been larger than I ever expected, and it was a lot of fun!” She also serves on several committees at UK, including the Postdoctoral Advisory Committee, the Women in Medicine and Science Executive Committee, the Annual Symposium of the Society of Postdoctoral Scholars committee, and as the postdoctoral representative to the Department of Physiology.

When not in the lab, you’ll find Vélez-Ortega on the dance floor. “I love dancing! Dancing is not only my passion but also my workout. So, when I’m not in the lab, you can often find me at a dance studio, a dance party, or even performing! I was fortunate to perform some classic Colombian dances during the 2010 World Equestrian games here in Lexington. I also try to join the belly dance crew at the Woodland Art Fair every summer, and I recently did a Salsa Flash Mob.” She also enjoys attending Symphony concerts to see her husband play the trumpet and “stay[ing] home, feeding my TV addiction.”

After completing her own training, Vélez-Ortega would like to pursue a career in academia. “Before my Ph.D., the idea of having my own laboratory did not seem too appealing. Back then, I simply loved working on the lab bench too much. But I have now been working in medical research for over 12 years. Recently, I have grown to love the process of training young students in the laboratory, coordinating research projects, discussing results, and writing papers more than simply performing experiments.”