Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month: Meet Maria Olvera Caltzontzin

October 15, 2021

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, MPFI is showcasing some of our talented researchers from Latin America, Spain, and the Caribbean. Today, we meet Maria Olvera Caltzontzin, a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Sarah Stern.

Looking back, Maria credits her Mexican heritage for her drive to succeed. “Growing in Mexico made me stubborn, and I’m always trying to find a solution to the problems. One of the phrases that stuck with me is, excellence does not come out of talent, but rather by practice and hard work,” she said. Now her hard work is focused on understanding a part of the brain called the insular cortex.

The insular cortex plays a role in almost everything we do, from emotion and decision making to pain and feeding. But how does this one particular part of the brain affect so many aspects of our life? That is the question that Maria is pursuing in her research at Max Planck Florida. “How the insula integrates internal and external information and how this integration alters feeding behavior is a topic that really fascinates me especially when we talk about feeding behaviors. Why is a chocolate cake so yummy when we are hungry or when it’s our favorite dessert, but then, why do we hate the same chocolate cake when we are too full or had gotten sick after eating it? How the brain can change the meaning of the same stimuli remains unclear and might be key to treat different pathologies like obesity, eating disorders, and chronic pain,” she explained.

As a child in Mexico, Maria describes resources as limited, but creativity inspired her to make things work. In addition, she is dyslexic and didn’t enjoy school when she was younger, despite a fascination with learning new things. “I was never good with exams and teachers comparing me with others, however, past these things, I realized that I loved learning new things and that I was actually good at many subjects like math and science,” she said. “When I did my first rotation in a lab I fell in love, that is when I understood that what I wanted to do in my life was to make crazy questions and try to find the answer.”

The Max Planck Society is no stranger to crazy questions, and Max Planck Florida’s model of curiosity-driven research was a perfect fit for Maria. “Normally most universities or institutions need questions that can be useful in the short term. So, questions like mine driven by curiosity, that are from our basic point of view are not that welcome in many organizations. However, MPFI allows me to go crazy and explore all of these basic molecular circuits, and the technologies that we have here are like magic to me. Having the opportunity to work at MPFI is a dream come true,” she said.