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Medical School Graduate Focuses on Underserved Communities at Home and Around the World

In the weeks leading up to graduation, David Martin (P&S'14) was in Rio de Janeiro, looking through pharmacy records to identify HIV patients at risk because they were not taking their medications correctly.

It was the latest stop on a career odyssey that has already taken the 28-year-old to locations that include China and the Dominican Republic. In New York, Martin settled in Washington Heights, where Columbia University Medical Center is located. With its large Dominican population, the neighborhood offered the Mexican-born Martin a chance to immerse himself daily in another Spanish-speaking culture.

“New York is unparalleled if you want to gain experience in global health issues,” Martin said. “I couldn’t imagine going anywhere else.”

While enrolled at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Martin worked at a student-run clinic called Columbia Student Medical Outreach (CoSMO) at 166th Street and Audubon Avenue, which serves an uninsured, largely undocumented immigrant population. He treasures the relationships he developed with patients there over the past five years. “It reaffirms why I went into medicine,” Martin said.

As a medical student Martin also was a member and then president of the Black and Latino Student Organization, where he worked to increase outreach to minority students interested in entering the medical profession. He also helped increase participation in America Reads, a national program to improve the literacy of elementary school pupils, by widening the organization’s recruiting on the Medical Center campus. “I feel it is something that I would have benefited from when I first entered the U.S.,” he said.

“New York is unparalleled if you want to gain experience in global health issues”

Martin emigrated to the United States with his family at age 9 after growing up in the Mexican state of Baja California Sur on the far western coast of Mexico. His father, a handyman at a marina, and his mother, a government secretary, came here in 1994 for educational opportunities for him and his older brother. The family settled an hour north of Des Moines, Iowa, before moving to San Diego County, where Martin graduated from public high school.

He enrolled in Harvard in 2003, the first member of his family to attend college, majoring in the history of science with a focus on chemistry. He wrote his undergraduate thesis on HIV in Brazil.

In Cambridge, Mass., he participated in a program that brought together North and South American high school students to discuss political and social issues that they had in common.

As part of a summer fellowship through the National Science Foundation, he traveled to the Mexican village of Ixtlilco el Grande, Morelos, in 2005 to perform bone density scans on adult members of the community as part of a larger nutrition study. The following summer, in 2006, Martin worked at Goldman Sachs as part of a team that helped advise government agencies in Mexico and Brazil on issues of investment and repackaging debt. To prepare for his stint in the corporate world, Martin said, “I bought my first suit.” He learned, however, that Wall Street was not his passion.

After college, Martin headed to China to teach high school English, then joined the Clinton Health Access Initiative—part of the Clinton Foundation—which was, he said, “a dream job coming out of Harvard.” His work there inspired Martin. He said, “It’s the reason I decided to apply to medical school.”

His growing passion for the field of global health also led Martin to the Dominican Republic, where he worked in 2007 on a program through the Clinton Foundation to reduce the cost of HIV tests and increase access to testing. He helped set up a system to collect blood samples from patients in rural and remote locations so they would no longer have to travel long distances to access the testing vital for their HIV care.

This June, Martin will join the emergency room at Highland Hospital in Oakland, Calif., which largely serves low-income patients. “It’s going to be tough work,” he said, but given the satisfaction he derives from helping those in greatest need, it was his first choice for his residency.

His parents, meanwhile, plan to come East to attend another family first—the graduation of a son who is an M.D. “It’s very emotional,” said Martin. “It’s also exciting.”

—by Gary Shapiro

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