With the Researcher Spotlight, the Microbial Systems Initiative aims to introduce you to the breadth and diversity of research interests and potential growth opportunities at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus. We hope that by highlighting both the researchers and their research, we can help you to learn more about and connect with your colleagues to enhance multidisciplinary research and education in microbial sciences here at Illinois.
Pamela Martinez, PhD
Department of Microbiology
Department of Statistics
Dr. Pamela Martinez is currently an assistant professor in Department of Microbiology and the Department of Statistics. She completed her PhD in Ecology and Evolution from The University of Chicago and she was a postdoctoral research fellow at the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at Harvard University, in which she studied the population dynamics of different pathogens. Her research lies at the intersection of ecology and the evolution of microorganisms to better understand how immunological and evolutionary processes influence the emergence and maintenance of pathogen diversity. Additionally, Dr. Martinez was a part of the MSI cluster hire in 2020. As a new faculty at Illinois, Dr. Martinez will continue developing the interface between dynamics based on ecological/epidemiological processes and population genetics theories. She will also continue her research to further understand the impact of environmental and climatic factors on the transmission of infectious diseases, as well as the role of microbial diversity on the population dynamics of human pathogens.
Do you have a personal story to share or path that led to your interest in this area of study?
During the last year of my undergrad, I had the opportunity to be part of the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Program at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. The Santa Fe Institute is a perfect place to work on projects that cross multiple fields and, in particular, to study complex ideas in biological systems. After that experience, I realized that I wanted to follow the academic path and that led me to apply to a PhD program and study pathogen dynamics to further understand how molecular processes impact microorganisms at the population level.
How does being part of the University of Illinois and/or the Champaign-Urbana community impact your research?
The University of Illinois provides many opportunities to do multidisciplinary research. I am part of the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB), and a member of the theme Infection Genomics for One Health (IGOH) led by Rachel Whitaker, who is also in the Department of Microbiology. Being part of IGB allows me to interact and collaborate with researchers from different disciplines and helps build a unique scientific community.
How will your work help to improve society or reach people?
My research focuses on understanding how pathogens are transmitted and how they have adapted to their environment. This area is of particular interest in public health and has a direct impact on our lives, which has been made clear by the ongoing pandemic. I hope that through outreach activities and community service, I can translate my research into the dissemination of reliable sources of information. Together with faculty from the Department of Anthropology, we have discussed opportunities to serve local communities that have been heavily impacted by COVID-19.
Recent news has pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic, systemic racism, and mental health as major societal health challenges. What part can researchers in your field play, in and out of the lab, in addressing these challenges?
I believe taking care of our mental health should be considered as necessary for our overall health as exercise and a healthy diet. Being aware of the different needs people have under stressful circumstances, such as a pandemic, should be considered when planning our teaching and mentoring responsibilities.
Additionally, I’m very involved in promoting the role of women in science and why it is important to acknowledge how male and female researchers may differ in their academic trajectories. Last year, together with 34 other female scientists, we wrote an article about the effect of the ongoing pandemic on women of all backgrounds in academia.
Do you want to tell us about any projects or activities that you are particularly excited about right now?
Currently, I am working on quantifying the consequences of socioeconomic disparities on the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in my home country of Chile. My hope is that this work can help to improve the response of future health crises and close the existing gap on social inequalities.