Meet Dr. Patricia A. Martin-DeLeon
My career as a reproductive geneticist began 52 years ago when for my doctoral studies Iused cytogenetic techniques to investigate if aging spermatozoa lead to chromosome abnormalities in resulting conceptuses. [I had acquired cytogenetic techniques at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica where I did my Masters and undergraduate studies]. Working with Evelyn Shaver at Western University in Canada where Murray Barr had discovered the Barr body and David Carr’s pioneering work showed high frequencies of chromosome abnormalities in abortuses, I was in an ideal environment to use the rabbit model to investigate chromosome anomalies in 6-day blastocysts resulting from sperm aged in the male. Significantly increased frequencies of trisomies, triploidy, and deletions were detected after rabbit sperm aging.
After 3 years of post-doctoral training at McGill University where I acquired cell and molecular genetics techniques, I joined the faculty at the University of Delaware (UD). Quickly I replicated in the mouse the results obtained for rabbit sperm, while building my research program, educating and mentoring students, and serving my professional community. Importantly, studying one-cell mouse embryos, the data showed the sperm to be the direct source of the anomalies, with triploidy resulting from diploid sperm. But why do aged chromosomally abnormal sperm have an advantage in effecting fertilization over fresh or unaged chromosomally normal ones? The answer to this question emerged more than 30 years later when my Lab showed sperm uptake of SPAM1 and other fertility-modulating proteins in the cauda epididymis during storage.
My teaching and research were mutually reinforcing. Not only did I emphasize reproductive genetics in the 100-600 level courses that I taught, but I trained >100 undergraduates in my Lab, along with graduate students and post-doctoral fellows. After re-tooling during sabbaticals in neighboring institutions (Johns Hopkins, Univ. Pennsylvania, and A.I. DuPont Institute) which provided me with state-of-the-art techniques, I remained competitive in attracting trainees. My students’ thesis and dissertation defenses where they display the mastery of their training and readiness for the next stage of their career were among my proudest moments.
But my journey was not challenge-free. My biggest challenge was obtaining funding when my work entered an emerging area of inquiry. As a pioneer in extracellular vesicles (EVs) in the female tract, I was told via my grant reviews that EVs were artifacts, despite the fact that I had preliminary data in the form of papers published in reputable journals. While only one of the reviewers was of the opinion that these vesicles (oviductosomes) were artifacts, that reviewer’s impact was enough to prevent funding, forcing me to find alternate and less robust means of support. The lesson here for young scientists is to believe in your data and yourself despite obstacles, remembering that the greater the effort, the greater the reward.
All in all it has been a delightful journey. It was fulfilling to do worthwhile work that not only helps to extract the secrets of nature, but can also lead to therapeutic strategies to improve assisted reproductive technologies. And what other career would have allowed me to interact with generations of bright young trainees, many of whom have subsequently become my colleagues and friends?
Dr. Patricia A. Martin-DeLeon is Trustees’ Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences Emerita and Francis Alison Professor at the University of Delaware where she spent the last 43 years before her recent retirement, and where she served for 19 years as Faculty Representative on the Board of Trustees. She has been a Visiting Scientist in the Pediatrics Department of Johns Hopkins University, a Visiting Faculty in the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pennsylvania, and an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Pharmacology, Penn State University College of Medicine.
Professor DeLeon is a reproductive geneticist whose research interests focused on genes involved in sperm development and function, sperm membrane and epididymal proteins, reproductive extracellular vesicles, sperm hyaluronidases, and transmission ratio distortion. She served as a member of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (1992-1996), NIH Study Sections and Special Emphasis Panels, National Science Foundation (NSF) Review Panels, and on the Executive Council of the American Society of Andrology where she was recognized for her scientific contributions in Andrology in 2006. She served on the editorial boards of six journals in Andrology/Reproduction, has published >110 papers and book chapters, and has three patents issued or pending. She is the recipient of the 2007 U.S. Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM), the 2010 Distinguished Alumna and Honoree and the 2019 Outstanding Women award (70th Anniversary) of the University of the West Indies, the 2011 Caribbean Women in Science medalist, and the 2017 Francis Alison Professor Award at the University of Delaware. In 2007 she gave the Keynote address at the 41st Annual meeting at the Minority Affairs Symposium of the SSR, and in 2010 delivered the 41st William G. Demas Memorial Lecture at the Caribbean Development Bank in the Bahamas. She was inducted into Phi Kappa Phi in 2015.
Dr. DeLeon graduated with a B.Sc Hons. (Chemistry and Zoology) and an M.Sc (Medical Genetics) from the University of the West Indies and with the Ph.D. in Microscopic Anatomy from the University of Western Ontario, London, Canada (1969-1972). She was a Medical Research Council (MRC) of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow at McGill University in Montreal (1972-1975). She is married and has a daughter, a son, and two granddaughters.