Alumni Profile: Kelsey Martin (MD/PhD ‘92)

Dean Kelsey Martin (MD/PhD ‘92) never planned to become a physician, let alone the dean of UCLA’S medical school. In fact, as an undergraduate at Harvard, she majored in English and American Language and Literature. After graduating in 1979, she decided to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer in Zaire, known today as the Democratic Republic of Congo.

It was Martin’s time as a Peace Corps volunteer that ignited her passion for medicine. Concerned by the alarming rate of child mortality, Martin began working on a variety of public health projects, ultimately setting up an education and vaccination program to help prevent measles in over 30,000 children. The program was so successful that Martin was motivated to do even more. “For me, it was absolutely the right way to get inspired by medicine,” Martin said.

Upon her return to the United States, Martin began working in the laboratory of George Miller at Yale, studying HIV transmission. Martin was originally drawn to the project’s ties to public health, but she spent most of her time working at the bench. “I really loved my work there. I loved working at such a basic science level, but on a project that had so much public health and clinical relevance,” Martin said. The Miller Lab, which focuses on primarily a molecular virology, turned Martin onto the kind of biomedical science research she would continue for the rest of her career.

In 1984, Martin became a Yale student, eventually graduating in 1992 with an MD and a PhD in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry. She completed her graduate work in the laboratory of Ari Helenius, where she studied influenza virus-host cell interactions. Afterwards, Martin began her clerkships at Yale-New Haven Hospital with the full intention of pursuing a career as a physician—that is, until she stumbled upon psychiatry. On the wards, she was struck by the limitations psychiatrists faced when it came to our understanding of the brain. The more she saw of this enormous need in the behavioral sciences, the more she wanted to contribute to the field.

After Martin graduated from Yale, instead of going on to complete a medical residency training program as most students do after medical school, she decided to continue research, completing her postdoctoral training in neurobiology with Eric Kandel at Columbia University. There, she became interested in figuring out how experiences change the neuronal connections in our brains and how our brains store long-term memories. “I completely fell in love with what I was doing in the lab. After staying there for a long post-doc, I knew I wanted to continue neuroscience research,” Martin said. And so, she did.

In 1999, Martin joined the faculty at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. Today, the Martin lab seeks to understand how gene expression is spatially and temporally regulated during the formation of long-term memories. She says this is an exciting time to be studying a project like this. “The tools we use to ask molecular cell biology questions about memory are becoming more and more exciting,” Martin said.

Martin was named dean of UCLA’s medical school in 2016. She is proud to be a medical school dean whose career has been so focused on basic biomedical research. “The main reason I am so motivated as dean is because I believe so deeply in the synergy of discovery science and clinical medicine,” Martin said. “There is so much promise in curiosity-driven biomedical research to make discoveries that transform how we understand and treat disease.” Martin is especially motivated to ensure that medical schools continue to support this crucial interface between innovative new knowledge and clinical medicine.

The first woman to serve as dean for UCLA’s medical school, Martin is also one of only a few women leading a medical school in the United States. “My main advice is to follow your dreams,” Martin said when asked if she had any advice for young women pursuing careers in STEM. “There isn’t only one way to pursue a career in medicine as a woman. You need to find the right path for yourself.”

In 2018, Martin won Yale’s Wilbur Lucius Cross Medal for her excellence in scholarship, teaching, academic administration, and public service. In the coming years, Martin will undoubtedly continue defying stereotypes, pushing medicine forward, and inspiring us all to pursue our own unique goals in life.