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From English lit to gene expression in neurons

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2017 - Winter


How two years in Africa steered Kelsey Martin, Ph.D. ’91, M.D. ’92, from a career in literature to a life studying molecular connections in the brain

In July, Kelsey C. Martin, Ph.D. ’91, M.D. ’92, a molecular biologist who’s been on the UCLA faculty since 1999, was named dean of the David Geffen School of Medicine there. Martin, already a respected researcher, joins an even more elite group: a 2013-2014 study by the Association of American Medical Colleges found that only 16 percent of medical school deanships are held by women.

(We had to ask: Does she get Dean Martin jokes? “Oh, I get them all the time. The really funny thing is, I’ve never seen a Dean Martin movie in my life.”)

In her lab, Martin studies the ways in which experience changes connections in the brain at a molecular level, particularly at the synapses—an understanding she calls “unbelievably important to psychiatric disease,” such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

“We need to understand at a very detailed molecular level what’s happening if we’re going to be able to intervene,” Martin said.

She recently unraveled some of the workings in an RNA-binding protein that affects gene expression in neurons: mutations in that same protein have been observed in autism spectrum disorders.

Martin’s research career has included over 75 peer-reviewed publications, election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a position on the editorial board of Cell, and continuous NIH funding since 1999.

The child of a University of Washington pathologist who really liked sabbaticals, Martin and her three brothers grew up in Seattle, Scotland, Mexico, and France. Back in the United States, she entered Radcliffe in 1975 as an English major. “I really love reading and writing,” she said, “and I was turned off by pre-med culture.”

But a stint in the Peace Corps in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) from 1980 to 1982 changed Martin’s outlook. She and her colleagues organized a vaccination campaign—recruiting rural bar owners to store the vaccines in their gasoline-powered refrigerators. That fall, measles didn’t make its usual arrival. Children who would have died kept playing.

“That blew my mind,” Martin said. “I realized how impactful biomedical discoveries and medicine were in terms of changing the quality of life and saving people’s lives.” She decided to go to medical school.

In 1985, after an editing job at the Harvard Institute for International Development, she became a technician in the Yale lab of molecular virologist and pediatrician I. George Miller Jr., M.D. The lab was studying HIV in children. In an era before translational medicine, its clinician-researchers knew that their basic science queries deeply mattered in the real world.

“Even though my dad is a scientist, I didn’t quite realize how creative and communal biomedical research was,” she recalled. “It was very much a community of students and postdocs and faculty and staff working together on problems. I discovered that I loved being in the lab.”

Martin entered the M.D./Ph.D. Program at Yale in 1986. For her Ph.D., she studied the cell biology of influenza virus under the mentorship of Ari Helenius, Ph.D. After graduation, she chose neurobiology because of the nervous system’s relative opacity compared with other organ systems. She did a postdoc at Columbia, and as her family grew—she had her first child while a third-year medical student—she pursued a nonclinical research career. (Her husband, Joel Braslow, also an M.D./Ph.D., is also on the faculty at UCLA, in psychiatry and history.)

Martin’s two children and two stepchildren are now in their twenties. That’s gotten her thinking.

“I have spent most of my professional life balancing family and work—and what’s so interesting to me is to get to this stage of my life where my children are grown up and I’m still really energetic,” Martin said. “I have a lot of time. I never imagined that.”

But her experience raising a family as a young scientist in the academy, fending off naysayers, and reliant on good day care, has helped inform her strategic vision for UCLA’s medical school.

“I was very focused on doing what I wanted to do and what I was interested in, so I never really felt limited in any way,” Martin said. “On the other hand, in my position now, I am profoundly aware of how limited the perspective of most academic medical centers is because of a general lack of diversity.”

In most such centers, a highly diverse graduate- and medical-student population gives way to one that is far less so at the faculty and administrative leadership level. And yet things like a six-month parental leave or funds to cover a babysitter at conferences can make a huge difference in keeping people in science, she pointed out.

“I was told frequently, ‘You can’t be a great scientist if you’re gonna have kids,’ ” she said.

“We need to work on structural ways of making it easier for all different types of individuals to be successful.”