There was a unique fluidity to growing up in the border town of El Paso, Texas, Luis Martínez says. He was raised in two countries, speaking Spanish and English, spending time with relatives on both sides of the US-Mexico border. His mother was born in the US and raised in Mexico. His father was born in Mexico, was raised in the US, served in World War II, and worked in what would become the Texas Workforce Commission, helping people find jobs. Although neither parent surpassed a high school education, both expected their children to do so. “It was always understood that we would be the generation that went to college,” Martínez says.
Uncertain which degree he would pursue, Martínez enrolled at Trinity University in San Antonio, a predominantly undergraduate institution. “Science was important, but it was one of many interests,” including music, religion, and philosophy, he says. Martínez took advantage of the school’s undergraduate research program, working in the lab of organic chemist Nancy Stewart Mills, where he learned he loved running experiments at the bench.
Martínez was excited about pursuing a PhD in synthetic organic chemistry in Eric Jacobsen’s group, which moved from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to Harvard University while Martínez was a group member. But the mental and emotional toll of grad school left him soured on academia. “If anything, I was done with chemistry,” he says. He got a job with Feinstein Kean Healthcare, a business-consulting agency that worked with biotech companies. The agency valued Martínez’s chemistry expertise and liberal arts education, a combination he began to realize he wanted to share with students.
Still, when the University of Texas at El Paso was looking for organic chemistry faculty, Martínez wasn’t entirely ready to leave the business world. A conversation with George Negrete, a mentor and chemistry professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, changed his mind. Negrete reminded Martínez of the relatively low number of Mexican American students studying chemistry and told Martínez, “If you go to UTEP, you have the ability to influence that number.” That resonated with Martínez, who grew up without seeing many chemists who looked like him. “I knew academically that there were Mexican American scientists, but it still felt like I was the weird one.” Martínez spent 8 years at UTEP—cofounding an independent consulting company in that time—before moving to Florida. His wife was a rocket scientist who needed to be near the rockets, he says.
When his wife found a position as a professor of physics and astronomy at Trinity University, the school was also looking for someone to lead its new Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Martínez’s varied experiences made him stand out. He accepted the job and began working to give Trinity’s students experience working in start-ups and starting their own companies. It’s a different academic experience and one in which Martínez is doing what he loves: serving undergraduates, helping build new things, and using some of his favorite skills that he learned from chemistry. “Entrepreneurship is fundamentally about solving problems,” he says.
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