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Environmental Factor, May 2012

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Spirit Lecture honors accomplished female scientist Gail Martin

By Ashley Godfrey

Spirit Lecture logo

The Spirit Lecture logo depicts the striving for self-fulfillment the series celebrates each year.

In recognition of Women’s History Month, University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) professor of anatomy Gail Martin, Ph.D., visited NIEHS April 16 to deliver the 2012 NIEHS Spirit Lecture, co-sponsored by the Diversity Council and Women Scientist Assembly. This annual event, now in its 11th year, recognizes outstanding women who have made significant contributions to their scientific field. In her talk, “From Stem Cells to Complex Patterning in the Embryo,” Martin gave a retrospective of her career, which has consisted of many notable achievements, including election into both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences. 

Paving the way for future research

In his introduction, NIEHS Deputy Director Rick Woychik, Ph.D., explained, ”[Martin’s] research has had a profound impact on many members of the biomedical community.” In her early work, Martin was able to create a reproducible method for maintaining embryonic carcinoma (EC) cells in their pluripotent, or undifferentiated, state in culture. These cells are derived from a specific type of tumor and are unique in their ability to give rise to many different cell types.

Continuing this line of work, Martin became one of the first scientists to find that these pluripotent cells could be directly collected from embryos and used in the lab as a model system to study normal embryo development. Martin’s breakthrough introduced the scientific world to embryonic stem cells and helped kick-start the research of this continuously growing biomedical field.

Watch ‘Women in History,’ a slide show created for the Spirit Lecture series by NTP scientist Brad Collins


Later on in her career, Martin became interested in studying the genes that pattern the normal embryo and began an extensive body of work on the fibroblast growth factor (FGF) family of proteins. These proteins are key players in the process of proliferation and differentiation in a wide variety of cells and tissues. Her research has established a model, which suggests that the levels of FGF signaling during development can explain how complex patterning of different tissues and organs is accomplished.

Martin’s research has also led to the discovery of a set of genes, the sprouty gene family, whose job is to turn down FGF signaling during development. Expression of these genes is induced by FGF signaling and leads to an exquisite negative feedback loop that keeps FGF signaling in check by expression of the sprouty genes.

“We have found that, in many tissues, sprouty genes are there to prevent cells from doing something they are capable of doing, but shouldn’t do for normal development,” Martin told the audience.

Perseverance pays off in the end

When asked about her advice to young women scientists, Martin’s answer demonstrated that her hard work and determination were key factors in her own success. She explained that her own career path did not always follow an easy road. For example, when she was a postdoctoral student in London, she was not allowed to work in the same institute as her husband, because it was considered nepotism, but she was able to find a position in a different area.

Following her early success, Martin said, “I was able to talk my way into a faculty position [at UCSF].” This position, however, was not a tenure track position, which meant she had no extra salary, no start-up package, and no real job security. This, of course, did not discourage Martin, who successfully kept her lab going for 10 years before UCSF finally made her a full professor in 1985.

“I was able to take a back route in, but it was tough,” stated Martin. She emphasized that she could not have been so successful without the help and support of others, and said she considers herself really blessed by the young scientists she has had the opportunity to mentor.

Martin concluded her lecture by stating that she was planning to retire and leave her work for the next generation of scientists.

A reception followed Martin’s talk, provided by donations from members of the Spirit Lecture Committee.

 (Ashley Godfrey, Ph.D. is a postdoctoral fellow in the Molecular and Genetic Epidemiology Group in the NIEHS Laboratory of Molecular Carcinogenesis.)

Deputy Director Rick Woychik, Ph.D.

Woychik explained how Martin was not only an exceptional scientist, but that her efforts to build central databases in order to keep important scientific discoveries connected across different labs has redefined collaborative activities at her university. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Several attendees joined Martin for a look at a picture of her son as a baby along with his karotype, a representation of his chromosomal structure.

Several attendees joined Martin for a look at a picture of her son as a baby along with his karotype, a representation of his chromosomal structure. Shown, left to right, are Angela King-Herbert, D.V.M., Veronica Robinson, Helen Cunny, Ph.D., Martin, Spirit Lecture Committee chair Molly Vallant, Diane Spencer, and Grace Kissling, Ph.D. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Gail Martin, Ph.D.

Martin’s introduction emphasized that her lecture was more than just a retrospective about her career, but was really about the people who worked with her. Throughout her talk Martin made sure to point out the scientists who have worked in her lab and how their contributions helped to guide their own successful careers. Martin was proud to point out that two of these scientists, Terry Magnuson, Ph.D., and Alex Joyner, Ph.D., have recently been inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Charlie Tate, Jan Drake, Ph.D., and Jerry Heindel, Ph.D.

Martin’s lecture was well attended by many members of the NIEHS community. Shown, left to right, are Charlie Tate, Jan Drake, Ph.D., former Laboratory of Molecular Genetics chief, and Jerry Heindel, Ph.D., Division of Extramural Research and Training program administrator. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Rick Woychik, Ph.D., Gail Martin, Ph.D., and the Spirit Lecture Committee

Woychik, left, joined members of the Spirit Lecture Committee and on the patio during the reception. Shown, left to right, are Kissling, Eli Ney, Diversity Council chair Brad Collins, Spencer, Martin, Vallant, King-Herbert, and Robinson. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

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