“The last time I was at Calvin, I was somewhat amused that the recollection among the faculty was that I was an excellent student,” recalled Todd J. Martinez ’89, a professor of chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “My recollections were not in line with that,” he said, laughing.
Martínez, a theoretical chemist whose work ventures into molecular engineering, was chosen as one of 25 MacArthur fellows for 2005. The award, bestowed by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation — and popularly, though not officially, known as the “genius grant” — amounts to $500,000 in “no strings attached” support spread over five years.
The MacArthur Foundation Web site ascribes these characteristics to the artists, writers, teachers, scientists and others who are chosen as fellows: “ability to transcend traditional boundaries, willingness to take risks, persistence in the face of personal and conceptual obstacles, capacity to synthesize disparate ideas and approaches.”
Martínez embodies these qualities in both his work and his life.
The son of a Cuban father, who fled Cuba after Castro’s revolution, and an Italian mother, Martínez was born in New York City. “My mother was Christian and my father was not. The way that I hear the story, part of the deal for dating was that my father had to go to church. After some amount of time, my father became a Christian and was ‘on fire.’ At least, that was how we would put it.”
His father almost immediately went to seminary to become a Reformed Episcopalian minister (“you’ll notice the word ‘Reformed’ already appears,” Martínez joked). In 1977, when Martínez was 9, the family planted a church in Nicaragua and later moved on to El Salvador and finally the Dominican Republic.
In 1984, a Calvin grad named Cyndi Geerdes ’83, visiting the Dominican Republic on a mission trip, convinced Martínez that Calvin was the college for him. The pair married in 1989.
He arrived on the Calvin campus to experience a culture shock that was only partly caused by the Michigan winter: “The cold was crazy. The first year, I had a philosophy class. I had to spend 15 minutes dressing so I could get to Hiemenga Hall. And, once I got there, then I had to spend 15 minutes undressing. I never got used to it.”
Along with the implacable winter, Martínez also felt alienated from American culture. “Talking to Americans always struck me as strange. What they thought qualified as hard times was very different from what I thought qualified as hard times.”
If he was taken aback by the cold and the American way, Martínez had no such struggle with Calvin professors. “It was clear that what the faculty valued was creativity and smarts and hard-working ability,” he said. “They couldn’t care less whether you were Dutch or green or Martian or what.”
One professor of chemistry was particularly inspiring. “Roger DeKock is the reason why I’m here,” Martínez said simply. “Roger was telling people that you could do chemistry on computers … and I was somewhat skeptical. He had an Interim course on how you could use computers and mathematics to solve chemical problems. That was the point when I realized what I wanted to do.”
Martínez’s chemistry research has taken him through UCLA and — on a Fulbright Fellowship — to the Fritz Haber Institute for Molecular Dynamics in Jerusalem, Israel. The MacArthur Fellowship is the latest in his long list of academic awards.
Yet Martínez credits his first alma mater with giving him the impetus for success. “I would say the most important way that one sees faith in the work of scientists is through dedication to doing the absolute best that we can,” he said. “It’s certainly not true that Christians are the only ones dedicated to excellence, but that’s part of being a Christian. We have a driving force that makes us be the best we can in work, in family and spiritually.
“It’s because what we do — at least this is what Calvin taught me — is a reflection of our Christianity. What we do is going to reflect on our God. At the same time, we recognize that any success we have is only possible because of God’s grace.”
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