Joseph L. Martinez, Jr. and James G. Townsel
Over the course of their careers, James (Jim) G. Townsel and Joseph (Joe) L. Martinez Jr. made enormous contributions to advancing neuroscience discovery and to increasing diversity, equity and inclusion in the neurosciences. They first met in 1974 at the MBL in the Frontiers in Teaching and Research Program and became lifelong friends and collaborators. Together, they established programs aimed at providing professional development, scientific skills, mentoring and networking, and influenced the lives and careers of hundreds of individuals from underrepresented groups.
Joe Martinez was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on August 1, 1944 and remained proud of his Chicano heritage throughout his life. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of San Diego in 1966; his master’s in Experimental Psychology from New Mexico Highlands University in 1968; and his Ph.D. in Physiological Psychology from the University of Delaware in 1971. His scientific career spanned several institutions and crossed disciplinary boundaries.
He began his faculty career in 1972 at California State University, San Bernardino (CSUSB) in the Department of Psychology. Recognizing that the health and well-being of Mexican Americans was neglected in the field of psychology, Joe helped to organize the First Symposium on Chicano Psychology, and then co-edited the book that established the field. Titled Chicano Psychology, the book remains influential more than 40 years after it was first published. Later in his career he helped found the National Hispanic Science Network (NHSN), which is dedicated to improving the health equity of Hispanics.
Wishing to return to his interest in understanding the brain and behavior, Joe left CSUSB in the late 1970s and pursued research in the laboratories of James McGaugh at the University of California, Irvine and Floyd Bloom at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. In 1982 he was recruited to the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley where he was affiliated with multiple departments and groups, including Psychology, Endocrinology and Neurobiology, and was area head of the Biopsychology Group. He also served as faculty assistant to the vice chancellor for Affirmative Action. In 1995 he moved to the University of Texas, San Antonio (UTSA) where he served in multiple leadership roles, including Ewing Halsell Distinguished Chair and director of the Cajal Neuroscience Institute.
Joe’s early neuroscientific work demonstrated the impact that drugs and neurotransmitters have on learning and memory and his later work examined the neurochemical, electrophysiological and molecular substrates of synaptic plasticity. In addition to more than 125 peer reviewed publications in neuroscience, Joe co-edited several books on the neurobiology of learning, memory and sleep. Over the years he was successful in obtaining nearly $18 million in funding to support research and education.
Throughout his career, Joe was a passionate advocate for individuals from underrepresented groups. In his laboratory he trained dozens of undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. He was known for his gentle, soft-spoken manner.
Jim Townsel was born in 1935 in Albemarle, N.C., and grew up in Harrisburg, Penn. He majored in biology at Virginia State University (VSU), participated in ROTC, and graduated in 1958 with high honors. Because he could not afford to go to medical school, he began his career in the U.S. Army. While giving lectures on biology for the Medical Services Corps, he became fascinated by basic science and decided to retire from the military.
Jim earned his Ph.D. in Physiology at Purdue University in 1968 and was recruited immediately to the faculty of VSU. In 1971, he accepted a postdoctoral traineeship at Harvard Medical School in Edward Kravitz’s laboratory, which galvanized his passion for neuroscience. In 1973, he accepted an assistant professorship at Meharry, later moved to the University of Illinois at Chicago to administer its Urban Health Program, and finally returned to Meharry in 1984 to become professor and chair of the Physiology Department. He retired in 2010.
When Jim arrived at Meharry in 1973, he quickly obtained research grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). He built a strong research program that made significant contributions to the trafficking of proteins involved in neurotransmission and created a culture of research that benefitted students. He hired two active neuroscientists to the faculty, secured competitive federal funding in support of research, created a multidisciplinary graduate program that earned an NIH training grant, and developed an NIH-funded collaborative program with Vanderbilt University for predoctoral trainees.
Jim had an outstanding track record of training. Of 11 Black trainees, nine remained in research and are now faculty members at research universities. One trainee who received a Ph.D. in 1995, Byron Ford, who is now a professor at the University of California, Riverside, recalls the “tough love” Jim gave his trainees. Jim walked through the lab every day to grill his trainees about their research. He demanded productivity, but also emphasized rigor and reproducibility before “it was a thing.” He also demanded intellectual accountability. Byron recalls, “I learned it was OK not to know something once, but I would never not know it twice.”
Together, Jim and Joe collaborated in the Diversity Program in Neuroscience (DPN), a nationwide training program for pre- and postdoctoral scholars funded by the National Institutes of Health (and sponsored by the American Psychological Association). The program offered three important components in addition to the training stipend: mentorship, annual monitoring, and enrichment activities. The enrichment program included a month-long experience encompassing professional development, lectures in neuroscience, mentoring, and networking at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole that became the Summer Program in Neuroscience, Ethics and Survival (SPINES; now named the Summer Program in Neuroscience, Excellence and Success).
Officially launched as a course at MBL in 2000, SPINES has continued to maintain an outstanding track record of success, with many of its alumni now in senior academic positions, positioned to influence the careers of others. In 2006, in recognition of their extraordinary work to prepare the next generation of neuroscientists, the MBL established the Joe L. Martinez, Jr. and James G. Townsel Endowed Distinguished Lectureship, which supports a special lecture during SPINES.
Both Jim and Joe passed away in 2020, and their memories were honored by generations of grateful colleagues and mentees in neuroscience.
— By Rae Nishi and Keith Trujillo
Nishi, Rae, Byron D. Ford and John G. Hildebrand (2020) James G. Townsel (1935-2020): Neuroscientist and Devoted Mentor of Diverse Scientists. Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.abd8380.
Trujillo, Keith A., Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa and Kenira J. Thompson (2020) Joe L. Martinez Jr. (1944-2020): Neuroscientist and Advocate of Inclusion. Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.abe7588
Why Supporting Underrepresented Minorities was a Driving Force for This Neuroscientist (an interview with James Townsel). Neuronline