OU Alumnus Earns Prestigious Research Fellowship; Contributes Success to OU
Growing up in El Salvador, David R. Martinez, Ph.D., never would have imagined the impact the University of Oklahoma would have on him and how it would lead to the life-saving COVID-19 research he conducts today. His work was recently recognized by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which named Martinez as one of 21 exceptional early career scientists for the 2020 Hanna H. Gray Fellows Program. The program supports diversity in biomedical research.
The new cohort of early year researchers – representing 18 institutions across a broad swath of the United States – is taking on some of the biggest challenges in the life sciences. The cohort joins a growing community of Hanna Gray Fellows, all at a critical time in their academic careers – the postdoctoral training phase through the transition to becoming a principal investigator. Each fellow will receive up to $1.4 million over eight years.
“I am humbled by the award and my peer recognition in getting this award,” Martinez said. “Certainly, being affiliated with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute is a huge honor for me, and it is game changing.”
As a child, Martinez was drawn to nature, and he specifically recalls playing with a microscope in his father’s diagnostic lab. When he was 13 years old, his family moved to Ardmore, Oklahoma, to be closer to extended family. Soon after moving, he became interested in OU and microbiology.
David R. Martinez, Ph.D.
In 2013, Martinez graduated with a bachelor of science in microbiology, with distinction, from OU. Immediately following graduation, he started work on his doctorate in the molecular genetics and microbiology program at Duke University. Following the completion of his doctorate, he joined the laboratory of noted virologist Ralph S. Baric, Ph.D., at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he is now a postdoctoral scholar at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Martinez had focused his research on creating an effective vaccine for Dengue fever, which is prevalent in El Salvador. His research examined the quirks of the human immune system that make antibody responses to the Dengue virus infection that are so different from the defenses mounted against its cousins, which include Zika virus, yellow fever virus and West Nile virus. When the pandemic began, his research quickly shifted, as Baric is one of the leading coronavirus virologists in the world, and Martinez credits his time at OU for preparing him for the work he is currently doing on COVID-19 vaccines.
“The foundation I obtained as an undergraduate at OU was really crucial for my success, not just here at UNC and in getting fellowships, but for being involved in two of the five Operation Warp Speed SARS-CoV-2 vaccines, including Moderna and Johnson & Johnson,” Martinez said. “The well-rounded foundation in microbiology I received at OU has helped me tremendously in my academic career. I moved to Duke and then on to UNC, but it all traces back to OU because of the rigorous training in microbiology.”
Martinez credits courses he took at OU under professor Paul Lawson, associate professor Susan Schroeder and assistant professor Karen Meysick for being informative and opening his eyes to microbiology and virology. While at OU, Martinez worked as an undergraduate research assistant in Lawson’s lab.
“My first interaction with David came in my Pathogenic Microbiology and Infectious Disease class back in 2012, where it became obvious from his questions and group discussions [that] he had a bright and enquiring mind,” Lawson said. “My positive opinion was reinforced when David asked to join my laboratory to undertake an independent study. He immediately shone and produced some innovative and interesting work, leading to many enjoyable discussions. From these initial experiences, I had no doubts he had a very bright future ahead of him.”
Martinez and Lawson kept in touch over the years and, in the fall of 2020, Lawson invited Martinez to present a Zoom lecture about his career to the OU student chapter of the American Society of Microbiology.
“His gracious manner and our good-natured banter really went over well with the students,” Lawson said. “From the question-and-answer session, it was obvious the talk was a great success and the students really were enthralled and motivated with his stories that involved transitioning from an undergraduate here at OU, to being a Ph.D. student at Duke, through postdoctoral studies at North Carolina, to the present day as an established academic in a prestigious laboratory making important discoveries on the COVID-19 virus. It’s been a pleasure watching David flourish both as a person and an independent academic who now mentors his own students.”
Martinez ultimately wants to become a professor at a large R1 institution like OU, where he will conduct biomedical research, and the Hanna Gray Fellowship is a step forward on that path. The program also aims to increase diversity in science by recruiting early career scientists who represent a variety of racial, ethnic, gender, ability and other underrepresented backgrounds.
“With these types of awards, it has been inspiring seeing people like me with the jobs I aspire to have someday,” Martinez said. “I think representation matters and seeing people like you in roles you aspire to have is critical. One thing that has been instrumental for me is having role models – not just people who look like me but having role models in general. It is important, though, to have other Latin American scientists who are highly successful at what they do and really excel at biomedical research at multiple institutions. I think these types of awards are important for that, too, so that younger people can see people like me who look up to older people, and it is a chain that continues to inspire the next generation of scientists.”
For more information about the Hanna H. Gray Fellows Program, click here.
By Zack Higbee
Article Published: Wednesday, February 24, 2021