Johanna Calderon: from Harvard University to UM

In January 2021, Johanna Calderon, a researcher in neuropsychology and psychiatry at Harvard University, will head up an attractive chair at the University of Montpellier in the neurodevelopment of congenital heart pathologies. A first in France.

At 37, Johanna Calderon has an impeccable academic record. A three-year thesis, two post-doctorates and a teaching-research position at the prestigious Harvard University. All this has been punctuated by several awards (including the L'Oréal UNESCO Prize and the Prix Solennel en Médecine from the Chancellerie des Universités de Paris) and a list of publications that stretches to three pages of CV. As her latest success, the young researcher has just been awarded a Chair of Excellence at the University of Montpellier, starting in January 2021.

The starting point for this transatlantic career is Johanna Calderon's curiosity for children's cognitive abilities. Her doctorate in pediatric neuropsychology at Hôpital Necker focused on the consequences of open-heart surgery on the development of young children. Her aim was to identify the effects of a lack of oxygenation of the brain - due to cardiac pathologies and surgical practices - on neurocognitive development. Her research was carried out first on cohorts of 3-year-olds, then on 8-year-olds.

A public health issue

Johanna Calderon contributed her first bricks to the discipline during her thesis and post-doctorate in public health at Inserm. "My work has helped describe the neurodevelopmental profile of children born with heart defects. I identified a list of very specific disorders, which were rarely detected because the children generally have normal intelligence", explains the researcher. In particular, she provides evidence of autistic disorders, as well as other behavioral and attention disorders.

Straddling two disciplines - neurology and psychology - his work combines diagnoses of children's neurodevelopment with standardized psychological tests. A mainly quantitative Anglo-Saxon neurodevelopmental approach. Her specialty on congenital heart disease is at the forefront in the United States. On the strength of her initial research results, she crossed the Atlantic in 2015. First with a postdoctorate at Boston Children's Hospital, then a position in neuropsychology and psychiatry at Harvard University.

"Getting back into French research

While his work contributes to fundamental research, the transfer of scientific knowledge into clinical practice is particularly important to him, in order to improve screening and diagnosis, as well as treatment. This last objective is the culmination of her work: to improve patients' quality of life, now that their survival is largely assured. This is a global public health issue, given that 1% of children are born with heart disease.

Johanna Calderon will now continue her research in France, She has been awarded an " attractiveness chair " funded by the MUSE project, which will enable her to finance both her post and that of a post-doctoral student.. Two will be supported by a laboratory technician, thanks to the support of Montpellier University Hospital. who thus contribute to the development of "the neuro-cardiac research axis from a lifelong perspective, from the fetus to the adult, which is a pioneering initiative in our country", she points out.

And Montpellier is an ideal epicenter. Projects are already underway with two Montpellier-based teams: Alain Lacampagne, deputy director and future director of the PhyMedExp laboratory (UM, Inserm, CNRS, CHU Montpellier) and Pascal Amedro, head of the pediatrics department at CHU Montpellier. On the subject of her return, the young woman makes no secret of the pleasure of being reunited with her family. And she adds that the city of Languedoc is a city where she imagines herself living very well.

Commenting on the program that has enabled her to return to France, Johanna Calderon hails it as "an attractive way of getting back into French research". While the American system gives access to substantial resources, the search for funding requires a great deal of energy, with no guarantee of continuity in research projects. He concludes: "The prospect of future tenure in a French research establishment allows me to project my research over the long term, throughout the life of patients.

Johanna Calderon, Ph.D.

Doctor of Psychology 

Main awards and funding : 

  • 2019 - 2021- OFD Faculty Career Development Grant (PI)
  • 2016- 2019 - United States Department of Defense Grant (co-PI)
  • 2016- 2019 - Thrasher Research Fund Early Career Grant in Children's Health and Development
  • 2016 - International Neuropsychological Society (INS) Research Award
  • 2015 - Christian Nezelof- IMAGINE Award in Pediatrics
  • 2014 - L'Oréal UNESCO Postdoctoral Fellowship for Women in Science
  • 2014 - Prix Solennel de Thèse de la Chancellerie des Universités de Paris, Aguirre Basualdo/ Robin en Médicine Prize
  • 2010 - Prix de Research from the ARCFA Association in Pediatric Cardiology (€18,000)