National Hispanic Heritage Month with Thomas Martínez

The School of Pharmacy & Pharmaceutical Sciences will celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month by highlighting students and faculty of Hispanic and Latin heritage.  

Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrated from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. Originally started as a heritage celebration week in 1968, the observation was expanded to a full month in 1988. The celebration starts mid-month because Sept. 15 marks the independence anniversary of five countries: Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. It is followed by Mexico’s Independence Day on Sept. 16 and Chile’s on Sept. 18.  

Thomas Martínez, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, kicks off our faculty highlights by sharing his family’s Mexican-Palestinian background and offering advice to other Latinos in academia.

Q: Tell us about where you grew up and a little about your family.  

I grew up in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles. My parents emigrated to “The Valley” from different countries when they were teenagers, my dad from Mexico and my mother from Kuwait. 

Q: What inspired your studies and career? 

Biology and chemistry were the subjects that I latched onto most in school, and I was always really excited to learn more. I also vividly recall losing family members to cancer and other illnesses when I was young and wanting to understand why they happen and preventative measures. 

Q: What advice would you have for young people today interested in either pharmacology or pharmacy?  

Scientifically speaking, for students interested in pharmacology or pharmacy, I’d say study broadly. It’s increasingly important to understand biology from a big picture/physiology standpoint while still appreciating how systems function at a molecular level. It’s difficult to learn everything in great detail, but having a solid foundation in both aspects will allow you more flexibility to tackle challenging problems in the field. 

Q: Do you have any particular advice for Hispanic or Latino/Latinas? 

This is more general advice for all underrepresented minorities, but be your authentic self. I think for URM students, in particular, it’s often tempting to want to fit in with your colleagues as much as possible when you’re new because you’re already different in so many ways. While it’s great to make friends and find a support group, it’s not always worth it if you feel like you need to behave differently to fit in. It becomes too draining. UCI has a huge community, and ultimately, I think you are more likely to succeed by finding those, however few, that accept you as you are to form your support group. 

Q: How can UCI and SPPS continue to develop our diversity, equity, and inclusion practices for Hispanic or Latino/Latina students, staff, and faculty? 

In my opinion, the best thing we can do is increase the representation of Hispanic and Latino/Latina students and staff in SPPS and UCI at large. To this end, I’d advocate for more outreach. I believe that engaging with young students locally and encouraging them to pursue higher education and careers in STEM is a useful strategy for sustainably increasing our numbers. However, it’s not something that will happen overnight, and that’s why we need to start now. In the short term, celebrating Hispanic and Latin American culture and all other cultures is a great way to get more people excited to engage with and learn more about our neighbors from different backgrounds. It also provides a spotlight for us to find our peers and mentors with similar backgrounds, which can be hard sometimes in such a large university. ¡Hola! Marhaba!

Q: How would you address impostor syndrome to your students? 

The first step is to acknowledge how common impostor syndrome is. One review article estimates that 70% of people experience imposter syndrome at some point in their careers. Hopefully, knowing this fact spurs those experiencing it to broaden their perspective and understand that nothing is wrong with them for feeling this way. Also, it shows that there is more we all need to do to help bring these feelings out into the open to alleviate them. On this note, I think it’s also important for those in leadership positions to be aware of its existence and share their experience with it. Impostor syndrome is something I’ve struggled with throughout my entire training and career. Personally, speaking with mental health professionals when times are tough has been beneficial. It’s helped me reframe my perspective and remind myself that I earned my successes, and impostor feelings are often irrational. As an underrepresented minority, I understand that this can be tougher when you don’t see many colleagues with backgrounds similar to your own, and you lack a sense of belonging. I believe that increased representation will help in this regard over time. In the meantime, I reflect on the fact that I’ve met many exceptional scientists over the years, and they all have different personalities and backgrounds and skillsets.

“I genuinely believe there is no mold or requirement for being a good scientist other than being passionate about science. To me, being different is an asset.”

Thomas Martínez

Q: What is your favorite Hispanic tradition, dish or destination, and why?  

Christmas isn’t Christmas without tamales and usually pozole, too. Those dishes always put a smile on my face and make me look forward to the holidays. I’m proud of Mexican food culture. It’s rare to meet someone who says they don’t like any Mexican food at all. 

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