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Patricia Martin-DeLeon: Scientist par Excellence!

For someone who has lived for more than nine decades, life offers up few surprises. But 91-year-old Leonard Martin of St. Mary recently got one huge surprise when his daughter Patricia received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring at the White House, in Washington D.C.

The ceremony took place on January 6, 2010, when Patricia Martin-DeLeon, Trustees Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences at University of Delaware, stood alongside her peers from across the United States to be recognized not just for their teaching skills and pioneering work but for their ability to motivate students.

The excitement was still evident in her voice when Professor Martin-DeLeon described how four generations of Martins, her father, children and four year-old granddaughter Alex, along with her husband Winston, were present in Washington to share in this special moment.

Professor Martin-DeLeon, 65, has been in a reflective mood ever since she was selected to join an elite group of about 200 educators across America who have so far received this prestigious award. Her reflection has taken her way back to age 3, when she attended infant school in Port Maria.

“My mother told me that when I was in Class Three (age 5), I came home one day and told her that I had started to teach already, because the teacher had asked those of us who could read to teach the others who could not read.” Her mother now deceased, and her father, were stalwarts of the Port Maria community. They ran a furniture store in those early days. Later came L.P. Martin Funeral Home, believed to be one of the first funeral homes in the eastern end of the island.

President Obama talks with Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching winners in the State Dining Room of the White House on January 6, 2010

Professor Martin-DeLeon recalls that she also attended the Quaker-operated Continuation High School in Highgate. The second of nine children, she is full of praise for Excelsior School, where the far-sighted A.W. Powell gave her a second chance at education. After completing the 3rd Jamaica Local Examination she secured a place at Excelsior School which enabled her to carry on her education. At age 15, she was placed in 4th Form and emerged the top performing student of all six classes of 4th Form students. Her consistent hard work and dedication propelled her to success in the Cambridge examinations later on. All told, six Martin children attended Excelsior. But it was Patricia who convinced Mr. Powell that he needed to discount the tuition fees so that other members of the Martin clan could also have a chance at education.

Had she not got that second chance, Patricia mused, maybe she would have gone to teacher’s college or nursing school. But her sights were set much higher and she secured a place at the UWI, Mona Campus where she completed a B.Sc. degree in Natural Sciences (Hons) in 1967 and an Medical Genetics in 1969. At Mona, her mentors included Dr. Molly Thorburn, pioneering pathologist and Ivan Goodbody, professor of Zoology.

Vice President Joe Biden and wife, Jill Biden, are seated with Awardees as they listen to President Obama's remarks on January 6, 2010

It is no surprise that she sees mentoring as a critical part of developing the next generation of leaders and Professor Martin-DeLeon is credited with mentoring more than 100 trainees including graduates, undergraduates, post-doctoral fellows and visiting scientists, many of whom are women and minorities.

In responding to the announcement of the award last year, she said, “while the true honour has been partnering with students as they create and build their scientific careers, I am thrilled to be a recipient of this tremendous award which recognizes the importance of women and minorities in   scientific, mathematics and engineering fields."

President Obama poses with Awardees in the Blue Room of the White House on January 6, 2010

Referring to her UWI days, Professor Martin-DeLeon worked as a Research Assistant while studying for her Masters under the skillful supervision of Dr. Thorbourne. She described Dr. Thorbourne as a motivational figure who helped to build her confidence and who was magnanimous in giving her credit for her work on chromosome abnormalities such as seen in Down syndrome. Her work there was later published in the international medical journal, the Lancet. Today she remembers with gratitude, the rich learning environment that the UWI provided for her.

On her way to carving out an outstanding career in science, Professor Martin-DeLeon earned a Ph.D. from the University of Western Ontario, Canada in 1972 and then pursued post-doctoral studies at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec until 1975.

A year later, she joined the faculty at the University of Delaware where she is currently The Trustees Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences. She has also been a visiting scientist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the University Of Pennsylvania School Of Medicine, and was an adjunct professor at Penn State University College of Medicine.

Professor Martin-DeLeon is known internationally for her work in the area of andrology which is concerned with male reproductive health. She is focused on understanding male infertility and male contraception. Specifically her research interests include the genetic and molecular mechanisms of spermatogenesis, epididymal function and the molecular aspects of fertilization.

Her current work aims to provide the means to develop male contraceptive that is totally dependable, and also offer help to infertile men who want to produce children.

A much sought-after speaker, Professor Martin-DeLeon gave the keynote address at the Inaugural Mentoring Symposium of the American Society of Andrology in 2006 and at the Mentoring Symposium of the Society for the Study of Reproduction in 2008. She has travelled the world sharing her findings with members of the scientific community and has served as chairperson of Women in Science and Engineering (WISE). She is also a member of the President's Commission on the Status of Women at the University of Delaware where she serves as the Faculty Representative to the Board of Trustees.

A 1996 nominee for the Howard Hughes Medical Investigator Award, Professor Martin-DeLeon now has three patents issued or pending, and her research has been supported by both the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. She has received many other honours and awards, including the National Science Foundation Career Advancement Award and the Medical Research Council of Canada Postdoctoral Fellowship.

How do we get more of our students interested in science? Professor Martin-DeLeon feels teachers must try harder to awaken curiosity in their students.  “Science is all around us,” she stressed, in a way that signaled her passion for the subject. She disclosed that she was dissecting frogs at an early age as she began her journey of discovery.

President Barack Obama poses with Awardees in the State Dining Room of the White House on January 6, 2010

The professor urges students to look at the things around them – leaves, sea shells, sea animals – and become aware of nature. She observed that the world faces myriad challenges in the 21st century which demands innovation and requires scientific minds to think about them and provide solutions.

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