Alumni Profiles Series: Angel Martin
Angelical (Angel) Martin received her B.A. in Biochemistry from the University of Michigan and her Ph.D. in Pharmacology and Molecular Cancer Biology from Duke in 2017. At Duke, she trained under the mentorship of Dr. Matthew Hirschey. Her work focused on understanding the role of mitochondrial protein acetylation in the pathogenesis of Friedreich Ataxia (FA) Cardiomyopathy. Since completing her degree, Angel has pursued a career in the business of science. Recent roles include an internship as a Healthcare Investment Fellow at Vertex Ventures Healthcare in San Francisco, CA. Currently, Angel is an Associate at Frazier Healthcare Partners, a venture capital firm that invests in biotech therapeutics companies.
As a first-generation college student, how did you find community during your undergraduate training?
I did my undergraduate training at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where I was a first-generation, African American, female college student. When I started, I didn’t know anyone else in this same position; most of my peers were second- and third- generation Michigan Wolverines. The social capital and college know-how that comes with having relatives who attended college is a privilege and puts someone like me at an unfair disadvantage. While my family was very supportive in getting me there, they could not help me navigate through and thrive in college. To help myself and others like me, I co-founded a student group called First Generation College Students at Michigan (FirstGens@Michigan). Through FirstGens@Michigan, we enabled community at the student level by hosting weekly gatherings and creating safe spaces to foster collective knowledge on navigating college. Additionally, we worked with the university’s administration to make changes at the institutional level that would ultimately lead to first-gen housing and specialized first-year courses and other initiatives to serve these students’ needs.
Why did you decide to attend Duke for your Ph.D.?
Having started FirstGens@Michigan, it was important to me to continue my training in an environment where support for underrepresented minorities was already an integral part of the system. It was very clear to me that Duke was committed to inclusion and diversity at an institutional level. This was reflected in their creation of the Office of Biomedical Graduate Education (OBGE) (formerly the Office of Biomedical Graduate Diversity, OBGD) and the hiring of Sherilynn Black, Ph.D. ’08, as its director. When I interviewed in 2012, every student who could benefit from OBGD had an additional meeting scheduled to speak with Sherilynn. She and I had an amazing first meet, so much so that it ran over by 40 minutes. We had a great conversation about Sherilynn’s efforts to secure the NIH’s Initiative for Maximizing Development Program (T32) grant for Duke and her plans for robust programming to provide underrepresented minority graduate students the necessary know-how to thrive in Duke Ph.D. programs. Through OBGD, I was able to give and receive support from my community, as I had done at the University of Michigan and as I would continue to do in my professional career.
I also chose Duke because it is a premier institution for translational research, bench-to-beside-and-back-to-bench robust research. This was core to the mission of the Duke Molecular Physiology Institute (DMPI), where I completed my dissertation work. The Hirschey group in the DMPI deployed an integrated multi-omic approach to translational research. I fostered this perspective during my graduate tenure, leveraging cell culture models, mouse models, and patient samples along with multi-omic techniques to interrogate a role of mitochondrial protein acetylation in contributing to the pathogenesis of the cardiomyopathy associated with the rare disease Friedreich’s Ataxia (FA).
What was your first job after finishing your Ph.D.?
After graduate school, I opted to join the Friedreich’s Ataxia Research Alliance (FARA), a research nonprofit that supported my graduate research, as its Research Director. In this role, I managed FARA’s grant program where I distilled data from grant proposals and progress reports into insights that drove funding decisions. FARA funding enables research geared towards understanding the fundamental pathobiology of FA, as well as research for therapeutics development for this rare disease. FARA and other rare disease research nonprofits serve an integral role in creating and sustaining an ecosystem of patients, caregivers, researchers, biopharma, and insurers that can raise awareness for and address the unmet needs of patients with these diseases. This ecosystem enables the translation of the innovations from academic labs and patient experiences from the clinic into treatments for FA. At FARA, I was first exposed to the business of science and I worked closely with the Executive Director and scientific advisory board to engage academic investigators as well as biotech and pharma companies to advance therapeutic development for FA.
What can you tell me about your current position?
I recently joined the venture capital firm Frazier Healthcare Partners as an Associate on their Life Sciences team. Frazier invests in private and public companies that are developing innovative therapeutic technologies. As a venture capital investor, we provide early funds to companies that enable the preclinical and clinical development of cutting-edge therapeutics. The company functions like a research lab in that they are testing a hypothesis and do not actually know if their projects will succeed. Venture capitalists take on the financial risk and support the company early on because they believe in the long-term growth potential of the company’s ideas. It is an exciting space to be in because it keeps me abreast of the latest happenings in biotech and biopharma. At Frazier, most of the life sciences venture team has scientific and/or clinical training, which is essential to fully evaluate the growth potential of a biotech company and its innovations.
One of the reasons I that joined Frazier was because of the supportive environment for budding investors like myself. I work very closely with the partners, senior advisors, and entrepreneurs in residence at the firm. I also get to observe and absorb a ton of insights from them in action. It is a wonderful learning experience that has helped flatten the venture investing learning curve for me. I hear what types of questions they ask and learn how they are thinking about the innovative science. The Frazier team is invested in my career growth and I am encouraged to take initiative and lead on projects.
What does your day-to-day look like in your role?
As an associate in a venture firm, I do a lot of the due diligence work. My day is filled with evaluating cool science and ideas pitched by a company to our team. I also think through the clinical implications and potential financial returns of the proposed innovation. For example, if a company pitched systemic delivery of CRISPR for addressing a genetic disease, I would be all ears. This is an exciting technology with great promise for clinical translation; I would be keen to hear the company’s plans to translate their CRISPR candidate drug into a therapy. Some things I would look to understand include how the company will deliver the CRISPR candidate drug to the specific tissue of interest and how they will avoid unwanted side effects like an immune response to the CRISPR therapeutic. This is just one example of many types of cutting-edge technology opportunities that I get to evaluate and make decisions on every day.
How did your Ph.D. training help you in your career?
You become a bit of the sponge by the end of your graduate tenure, with all the reading and testing of ideas at the bench. You combine this superpower with the analytical and critical thinking skills that you hone throughout your training, and you have a unique expertise that can be leveraged in many spaces. For the business of science career space, I have been amazed at the sheer amount of literature that I can comb through in a day and my ability to adeptly pull-out actionable insights in a short window of time. I can achieve both depth and breadth on a life science-related topic to quickly ascertain the potential of a proposed therapeutic. This expertise is invaluable in my line of work.
What are the greatest challenges you have faced?
Despite the diverse array of opportunities available in biotech today and the dearth of tenured academic positions, as a graduate student I did not feel that there was much support for exploration of alternative careers outside of academia. At times I felt that some of my faculty mentors saw my engagement in non-academic professional development as a distraction, even though I was making good progress on my dissertation work. I was grateful to the Office of Biomedical Graduate Diversity for providing insights into these alternative opportunities. At retreats throughout the year, I engaged with invited speakers who have led successful and diverse careers in biotech. I met MDs and PhDs who worked in regulatory science, science writing, and who even started their own companies. It was amazing to hear their stories. For example, there was one individual who started a company out of his garage while doing a full-time postdoc at a large pharma; he was a postdoc by day, and an entrepreneur by at night. He had even bought a centrifuge for his garage to develop his company’s candidate therapeutics. Unconventional career treks like this inspired me and gave me confidence to follow my passions and set out on my own professional journey.
What are your career goals now?
Now I am focused on building a career in the business of science, leveraging my technical expertise to help make funding and other strategic decisions that inform the next generation of therapies in the clinic.
What advice would you share with current graduate students at Duke?
Practice proactive serendipity. Students sometimes forget that their time is flexible during graduate school and that there are many opportunities at Duke and beyond to explore potential career paths. It is important to be courageous and open to opportunities, even if they fall outside of the graduate student plan you and others have set for yourself. Take on an externship while you are doing your graduate work, shadow someone in a role that is of interest to you. Experiences like these will help you better understand your passions and your options.
Do you have a favorite memory at Duke?
During my graduate tenure I tried out a few Fuqua Business School courses. A favorite was called “Theories of leadership” and was centered on the concept of the leader-follower dynamic and how it enables productivity in many organizational settings. During the course, I was able to apply some of what I learned to my experience as a biomedical graduate student. Along with a fellow classmate, we designed a study to assess the leader-follower dynamic of the advisor-student relationship. We did the study in collaboration with Sherilynn Black, who was Director of OBGD at the time and is now the Associate Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement at Duke. There is a wealth of literature that describes how minority undergraduate students ascribe their self-worth to the health of their relationship with their mentor. We wanted to explore if this finding held true for minority graduate students and their advisors, and whether a deeper understanding of this dynamic could be used to create supportive programming geared towards student retention. Sherilynn was able to implement parts of the study and some of the findings were used to design programs for faculty and students, such as Faculty Fireside Chats and sensitivity trainings. I am grateful to have taken the course and I am so pleased that I could give back to the larger community through this work.
Ph.D. candidate, Molecular Genetics and Microbiology
Nicole Stantial is a Ph.D. candidate in the lab of Dr. Jinks-Robertson in the Molecular Genetics and Microbiology Department. Her research focuses on better understanding mechanisms of spontaneous mutations in cells. In her free time, she enjoys running, biking, and swimming, as well as exploring all the wonderful restaurants in Durham.