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Exceptionally Average

Looking over the impressive résumé of Rick Martinez (pictured left), the term late bloomer does not seem appropriate. Yet that is exactly how the medical director of corporate contributions and community relations for Johnson and Johnson portrays himself. He goes on to say, "I would describe myself as exceptionally average." He modestly explains his contributions as a physician, clinical researcher, administrator, and corporate philanthropist by saying, "We can't all be Nobel-award-winning scientists." Instead, curiosity drove him to conquer science and mathematics. These subjects did not always come naturally to him, but he knew that to accomplish his goals and further society, he would have to answer many tough questions.

"Curiouser and Curiouser!"

The above quote by Alice in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland describes the same curiosity that prompted Martinez to read The Washington Post as a child (his earliest educational experience). His mother, an African American from the rural south, and his father, a Mexican migrant worker, encouraged his inquisitive nature, although they were never formally educated beyond high school.

His mother gave him The World Book Encyclopedia, which fueled his passion for knowledge. Looking at the pictures and learning about the events happening outside of his Washington, D.C., neighborhood expanded his perspective. Martinez likens those encyclopedias to a 1960s-era version of Google [the popular Internet search site;]. At an early age, he developed a fondness for current events and social sciences.

At age 14, Martinez shifted his attention to biology when his aunt--who helped raise him --died from lung cancer. As a result, he channeled his grief and anger positively into a desire to understand and fight cancer by doing what was necessary to become a medical doctor. This incident marks a recurring theme in Martinez's life. Time and again, he has changed his professional outlook to satisfy an intellectual question. Early on, his family supported his studies and provided the balance he needed away from work and school. His educational and professional success also inspired some family members to further their education as well. Martinez received his B.A. in biology from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in 1978 and his M.D. from Wake Forest University in 1983.

Just after completing medical school, Martinez began his residency in the department of internal medicine at Baltimore's Sinai Hospital. While there, he admitted an elderly woman for hip replacement surgery. A few hours before the surgery, this formerly lucid and compliant patient grew confused, disoriented, and combative. He soon learned that many elderly patients develop delirium, which sometimes goes undiagnosed but suggests the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. Martinez developed and maintained an interest in dementia in the elderly after his frequent experiences with similar patients at Sinai and became a resident at the University of Maryland's Department of Psychiatry in 1984.

From the Clinic to the Lab

Martinez served as a consultant and treated patients with chronic and severe mental illness during his second residency. After completing his residencies, his intellectual curiosity remained unsatisfied; he wanted to systematically understand how medical conditions affect the brain and how the brain affects behavior, especially memory. To be successful, he knew he had to overcome his lack of research experience, so he left medicine to focus on clinical research. It was a difficult decision, but he could not do both, because caring for patients is a full-time job. Martinez urges students in medical school or residents interested in research "to be their own advocate in this regard."

In 1988 Martinez received a Medical Staff Research Fellowship at the National Institute of Mental Health ( NIMH), which allowed him to study Alzheimer's disease. During his short, 2-year stint as an NIMH fellow, he published in journals such as the Journal of Psychopharmacology, Biological Psychiatry, and the Journal of the National Medical Association. He also delivered speeches and papers at symposia throughout the world. After completing his fellowship in 1990, Martinez took a position at NIMH as head of the Geriatric Psychiatry Research Program, where he developed protocols and ideas for clinical trials. He became increasingly aware that most medicines on the market only offer temporary alleviation of chronic illnesses rather than cures.

Coming Full Circle

Eventually, Martinez realized that much of the care for the chronically ill depends on family support and government programs. This realization rekindled his childhood interest in social issues. He concluded that he had more than just research skills to offer Alzheimer's patients; therefore, in 1995, he became an issues expert on the U.S. Senate's Special Committee on Aging.

The legislative experience solidified Martinez's understanding that organizing a care system is as important as the medical care itself. He joined Jansen Pharmaceutica (a Johnson and Johnson company) in 1997 as a central nervous system disorder researcher and continued pursuing health service and policy issues. Consequently, Johnson and Johnson's corporate managers promoted Martinez to his current position as the director of medical affairs, corporate contributions, in 2000. He facilitates community-based organizations--most dealing with how poverty and illiteracy affect health--in the United States and Latin America. For example, Martinez oversees a program in Brazil that distributes medication to children at no cost through a nongovernmental organization. His work now allows others to realize their academic potential, as he did.

Avoiding the Potholes in Your Career

Martinez's life is an example for others, and he warns anyone who wants to pursue a science degree or career to be wary of career "potholes," although he admits "they are not always avoidable." The first pothole is a research environment (or mentor) that does not match your needs. Martinez says you should use "gumption" to find a more suitable research environment, even if it means moving. He emphasizes the need to "act with courage" when choosing a research project or a potential mentor. The second pothole is focusing so narrowly on the academic aspects of research that you lose the context for contributing to the greater good. Martinez says, "Curiosity-driven research is worth the anguish of starting and maintaining a research career as long as it ends up helping someone."

Clearly, Martinez has not lost his focus on helping others. While working at NIMH, he volunteered with inner-city D.C. sixth graders. He found that the teachers were overworked (with only one trained science teacher for three sixth grade classes) and often unable to teach because of overwhelming disciplinary problems and administrative duties. Martinez says, "I think that minority scientists should do more volunteer work in our public school systems. It's something you should do sometime during your career--whether you are a biology undergrad or a Ph.D. postdoc. It doesn't matter when, just do it. Many minority students are languishing in our public school systems, and this is the nest for developing these aptitudes [for science]."

Clinton Parks is a writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at