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Women Scientist Profiles

Kelsey C. Martin, M.D., Ph.D.

Kelsey C. Martin, M.D., Ph.D.

Kelsey C. Martin, M.D., Ph.D., is a professor of Biological Chemistry and of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences as well as the Dean of the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Her research focuses on how experience changes connections between neurons in the brain to store long-term memories. Understanding this connectivity is important to understanding conditions such as post-traumatic stress, memory disorders, and Alzheimers disease.

Do you see sex differences in your research on the brain?

We pay a lot of attention to the differences in males and females in our research on mice. At this point, we havent seen differences, but it doesnt mean that we wont find them. I do expect that we will.

What do you think are some of the most exciting recent scientific advances in your field?

There are three advances that are really important. One is being able to use exome sequencing or genome sequencing in large populations so that we can begin to tease apart the genetic control of different behaviors in brain health and disease. In my lab, we can use the insights from that work to focus our attention on specific molecules and genes.

Another area is imaging brain circuits in animals. The advances in microscopy probes that look at activity in neurons, using light to control circuits those are incredibly exciting technologies that enable us to understand the connections between nerve cell circuits and behavior.

Another exciting advance is in stem cells. You cant get access to nerve cells in the brain, but we can differentiate stem cells into neurons and grow the circuits in a dish. We can begin to grow three-dimensional structures that have a lot of the same characteristics of developing brains. Thats an area that I think is going to open up a lot of discovery.

What do you enjoy about being a scientist? 

I like the process of the scientific method. Theres something inspiring to me about the goal in science of trying to uncover the truth about the natural world. I am really motivated by this huge potential of biomedical research to transform health and alleviate a lot of suffering.

I was an English major in college. After college, I went into the Peace Corps, and I went to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and lived in a village where, every year, there was a measles epidemic that killed young children. I started a vaccination program, and it stopped that annual epidemic. I saw the power of an immunization program, and I realized that it wasnt just the vaccine it was the fact that scientists had learned about the virus, how to grow the virus, how to develop the vaccine. It was this incredible real-world demonstration of our biomedical research.

How has mentoring shaped your career?

Mentoring has shaped my career in pretty profound ways. George Miller, Jr., M.D., made me realize what an incredibly creative endeavor science is. Ari Helenius, Ph.D., taught me how to pay attention to data, how to think deeply about problems, and how to do the most controlled experiments so that you have confidence in your results. Eric Kandel, M.D., showed me a level of synthetic thinking being able to take information from many different sources and apply it to a problem. I would say that those teachers dramatically influenced my own career.

I do a lot of mentoring, and I have a number of students. I also co-directed the M.D./Ph.D. program for eight years at UCLA. Both as chair and now as dean, I consider mentoring junior faculty to be a huge part of my job. I think that a big part of being an effective mentor is really helping the person gain confidence in what their gifts and capacities in science are.

What do you do outside of work?

I still love to read, and I like to draw and paint. I have two children and two stepchildren. I really like to spend time with them and with my husband.

If you werent a scientist, what other job would you have?

Thats a hard one because there are two different answers. I would either be in international public health because you can have such an impact working on health problems that are common across the world, or Id write books and illustrate them. Thats what Id end up doing if I werent a scientist, but Im really happy being a scientist.

Are there barriers for women in science and, if so, what are they?

I would say there are challenges. I dont know if Id call them barriers at this point. One of the challenges is theres so much pressure to devote every moment of your waking life to science. I personally dont think thats necessary.

Ive seen it from my own trainees that theres this incredible concern about having a family and being a scientist and how you balance the time. I think that fathers have become more and more engaged in child rearing, but I still find that it is more of a concern for my female trainees than for my male trainees.

I had my first child while I was an M.D./Ph.D. student. I remember people telling me that it was going to be the end of my career. Im very grateful that I didnt pay any attention to that. I really wanted to do science, and I also really wanted to be a mom. One of my best ideas for an experiment that really opened up a whole new area of research for us came to me as a postdoctoral fellow while I was with my daughter on a preschool class field trip.

I was so fortunate at Columbia to have a daycare that was across the street from the lab where I was a postdoc that was open from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m. Not that you would leave your child there for the whole time, but it would allow you that flexibility that, if it was needed, you could pay $10 for an extra hour so that you could finish your experiment. So there are structural things we can do, absolutely.

I also believe that the more women who are in the field and who are balancing different parts of their lives, the more this myth that you cant be a mom and a scientist will go away.

In terms of barriers, there is something psychological that happens when you start out in medical school or graduate school and at least half of your classmates are women. You go to faculty and its much less than that. You go to the chairs and its way less than that. You go to a deans meeting and its still less. I do think that has an impact on the individual as a woman or as an underrepresented minority. Its something that needs to change.

What advice do you have for young women scientists?

My advice would be that, if science is thrilling and fascinating for you, go for it. Theres so much to do in science, and women have so much to offer in terms of being able to think creatively, deeply, and collaboratively. I hope that young women feel that the doors are open.

I do worry that there is concern in science about job security. Theres a concern about support for research. And yet, were in such an exciting moment in the history of science in terms of what we can discover. I want to encourage women to dive in and give all of their deepest thinking to the scientific problems that theyre passionate about.

We need to make sure that we communicate to the public, to legislators, about why what science has to offer is good for the country and for the world. I would say to young women scientists that there are a lot of ways to contribute to science, and its not just in the lab, so have an open mind about it.

This page last updated: June 22, 2017

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