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Martinez and Lee honored with Diversity Catalyst Award

Date: Monday, April 17, 2017

Experiences that Denise Martinez, MD, and Amy Lee, PhD, had growing up left lasting impressions and sparked strong personal commitments to improving diversity and inclusion in their workplaces and communities.Martinez

In recognition of their commitment, Drs. Lee and Martinez each received a 2017 Diversity Catalyst Award at a ceremony March 27 at the Iowa Memorial Union. The awards are sponsored by Equal Opportunity and Diversity within the Chief Diversity Office and honor those who have promoted the development of an inclusive, diverse campus community at the University of Iowa.

Martinez, now assistant dean for Cultural Affairs and Diversity Initiatives in the Carver College of Medicine and a family medicine physician, grew up in a racially diverse community. As a person of mixed race (white, Puerto Rican, and Hawaiian), she really didn’t see herself as “different” or in the minority until she attended a predominantly white, small, private college.

“It became clear to me that if I wanted things to be more inclusive there, the most effective way to do it would be to speak the administration’s language and work through the official structure,” she says. Leading a student government group to achieve improvements in the campus climate gave Martinez confidence to pursue her lifelong dream to become a doctor—even though her academic advisor had told her that she “could never get into medical school.” She also became a more successful candidate for medical school by participating in a Summer Health Professions Education Program—a program that she will now direct at UI.

Amy Lee, now assistant dean for Research in the Carver College of Medicine and a Professor of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics, is of Korean descent and was one only a handful of non-Caucasian students in her neighborhood and elementary school. “I think there was only one African-American family there too. It is an experience that still resonates with me,” she says.Lee

After high school, she went to the University of Michigan on a music scholarship, but a chance to do some research work in a lab revealed her true calling—biomedical research. “That is also about the time I started to see the sheer prejudice directed at minorities in higher education especially and felt that I wanted to do something about that,” Lee says.

After completing her graduate studies and postdoctoral fellowship, she was recruited as a tenure-track Assistant Professor at multiple universities but selected Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. “In addition to being an excellent opportunity professionally for my research, I knew that Atlanta is one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse cities in America and I would have an opportunity to meet and learn from so many people with backgrounds very different from my own,” she adds.

Colleagues who nominated Lee and Martinez spoke of how both are improving diversity and inclusion on campus, but specifically UI Health Care—whether through official programs, informal groups, or personal mentoring. In addition to working with current faculty and students at UI Health Care, the two have occasionally worked together to recruit new faculty and students, representing the university at national conferences of underrepresented groups, including events recruiting medical students as well as biomedical science students.

One of Lee’s nominators noted: “Dr. Lee is building the world she wants to see, rather than just talking about it or expecting someone else to do the hard parts. She takes it upon herself to get out, meet people from diverse backgrounds, introduce them to opportunities at Iowa, usher them into training programs, and, in many instances, see them through their training—in her lab especially—and many have gone on to find success in their own careers.”

Lee says, “I feel so strongly that a diverse team makes for better science that I have made it a part of my life as an academic. When I started I did not realize how much I would need to learn in order to mentor and support students from different backgrounds, but it is so important to do, and I have learned so much.”

Martinez received similar praise from colleagues nominating her for the award. “Dr. Martinez sets an outstanding example for our students, faculty, and leadership who seek to integrate these principles into their personal and professional lives on a daily basis. Not only has she proven herself to be an incredibly effective leader in the pursuit of diversity and cultural competency, but very simply, she is a wonderful human being and colleague. She is a humble leader, who does not seek accolades to acknowledge her success, and students flock to her as a beacon of support at the Carver College of Medicine.”

Martinez says, “A big focus in health care today is eliminating health disparities—recognizing why some groups of people do not receive equal levels of health care and solving that problem. Having a more diverse health care workforce will play an important part in providing care that is more culturally responsive. So not only is providing opportunities for all students and recruiting diverse faculty and staff the right thing to do in general, it makes our whole health care system stronger.”