Katie Martinez struggled mightily with math in high school, but now she’s eagerly pursuing a biomedical research career that’s all about crunching numbers. So, what happened to Katie? Cancer is what happened, specifically being diagnosed with breast cancer when she was just a few years out of college.
While growing up in Alexandria, VA, Martinez had little interest in science or math, doing so poorly that she even had to enroll in some remedial classes. So, it wasn’t surprising that she chose to major in history when she went off to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. There, Martinez eventually became intrigued by the many ways in which “built environments”—the places and circumstances in which people live—can affect the health of both individuals and communities. Her interest in these social determinants of health led her to pursue a Master’s degree in Public Health at the University of California, Los Angeles.
But Martinez’s personal and career plans were then dramatically challenged by the discovery, at age 27, that she had breast cancer. As she went through a long, grueling series of surgical procedures and chemotherapy treatments, she saw firsthand how an individual’s race, class, insurance status, and other characteristics can influence his or her health and healthcare. This made her determined to find a way to make a difference in resolving health disparities, and she came to the conclusion that a career in research was the best way to do it.
Her first step? Buckle down and really learn math. Armed with her newfound math skills, Martinez went on to earn a PhD in Health Services Research and Policy from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, where she focused on the relationship between patient-perceived quality of care and pain severity in individuals with cancer.
Today, as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and the Ann Arbor VA Health Services Research & Development Center, Martinez devotes her time to analyzing data on quality of life for people with cancer as it relates to decisions about treatment and screening. She carries out this work in the lab of Steven Katz, co-founder and director of the NIH-funded Cancer Surveillance and Outcomes Research Team.
Some might think it would be boring to spend hours at the computer, using sophisticated statistical software to sift through mountains of data. But Martinez finds it highly gratifying to apply her mathematical skills in search of answers to important societal questions. In fact, she says her work often feels like a dynamic summer camp, with people from many diverse backgrounds coming together toward a common goal, full of excitement, energy, and fun. Sounds like a winning equation all around!
Cancer Surveillance and Outcomes Research Team (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor)
Steven Katz (University of Michigan)
Science Careers (National Institute of General Medical Sciences/NIH)
Careers Blog (Office of Intramural Training/NIH)