Interview with Dr. Darel Martinez

By Vanessa Fleites - PhD Candidate in Neuroscience at Penn

By Vanessa Fleites - PhD Candidate in Neuroscience at Penn

Dr. Darel Martinez comes from the Center of Molecular Immunology (CIM) from Habana, Cuba through a collaboration between the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Cuban Academy of the Sciences. He is currently working in Dr. Carl June’s laboratory, focusing on learning about CAR-T cells immunotherapy with the hopes of taking this technology to Cuba. 

Dr. Martinez comes from a humble background. Both his parents are engineers and always instilled in him the importance and value of an education, which led him to become a curious child that always read anything he could get his hands on. This is very typical of Cuban parents. My grandparents encouraged an education for my mother and my parents did the same for my brother and I. Dr. Martinez pursued a free education in science after realizing his love for it and attained his doctorate degree. This came after participating in many STEM competitions, particularly after representing Cuba in an international chemistry competition.

CIM is well-known for the first successful vaccine to treat lung cancer. This therapeutic vaccine has been given to individuals whom do not respond to any other treatments. Even though with limited resources in Cuba, Dr. Martinez details how Cuban scientists have to be creative when deciding what tools to use to be able to answer their scientific questions. Innovation like this is possible due to collaborations among institutions in Cuba, as well as their collaborations with other countries, like the one formed with Penn. Researchers are sent to other institutions in intervals of 3-6 months to learn new techniques to bring back to Cuba. 

It is striking that although there are miles between Philadelphia and La Habana, graduate students still experience the similar frustrations in science, including institutional bureaucracy and having “9 experiments out of 10 that fail”. I agree with Dr. Martinez that one really has to love science to push through these failures. Part of the graduate school experience is learning to have grit in the face of these obstacles and persevere. At the end, the reward outweighs the failures if it’s truly one’s passion.