Meet Cristian Martinez, Diverse Faculty Fellow at Harper

Cristian Martinez

Cristian Martinez with Charlotte, the Field Museum's tarantula

Tucked up on the second floor of Building Z, between the Anatomy and Zoology labs, is a little office (Z229b), you can only get to by passing through Z229. It may take you a moment to find it (it’s not yet on the Harper map), but if you do, you will be greeted enthusiastically by Cristian Martinez, “Hi, I’m the beetle guy.”

Cristian is more than the beetle guy. He is Harper College’s newest Diverse Faculty Fellow. His field is biology; his passion is insects. He received his Ph.D. in insect ecology at the University of Illinois - Chicago, where he also obtained his bachelor’s in biology. In between, Cristian worked in the insect department of the Field Museum of Natural History.

What you may not know is that while Cristian was getting his education, he also obtained his EMT license and served as an Army Medic in the National Guard for nine years, with one deployment to Iraq. Even though his service pulled him away from his scholarly pursuits, he was still able to nurture his fascination for insects by collecting specimens he encountered overseas (see Stars and Stripes article).

Cristian’s interest in bugs was inspired by his biology teacher at Morton East High School in Cicero. “He introduced me to insect biology by involving me in learning about insect biodiversity and collection methods. I had an opportunity to sit down one-on-one with my teacher and discuss why I was interested in biology.” This teacher’s contagious excitement for science and his ability to engage students in biological concepts was something Cristian wanted to emulate.

One opportunity to inspire young minds came to Cristian serendipitously. A group of students from Unity Junior High in Cicero was interested in submitting a project for the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program aboard the International Space Station and wanted to conduct an experiment with spiders. So, they Googled “Spiders and Chicago,” and Cristian’s university lab website came up. “They contacted my Ph.D. advisor, and he pointed them in my direction because I was the only one in the lab that did science outreach at the time. They didn’t even know I had grown up in Cicero. We formulated a project proposal, it was accepted, and we conducted the study in 2012. The students even presented a poster session and did a 10-minute talk about their findings at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum,” Cristian proudly recalled. (Read more about this program and the 8th graders’ experiment.)

Cristian thrives on these interactions with students and is always looking for ways to engage them. He takes his 22 lb. red-tailed boa, Rosy, and his tarantula, Xochi, on the road to local high schools for outreach events. The past couple of summers he has taken undergraduate students to Costa Rica to conduct research as part of a National Science Foundation grant. So, it was only natural he would seek out an opportunity to teach biology. As one of his mentors pointed out, there is no better place to teach than a community college.

Cristian answered a few questions about why he pursued Harper’s Diverse Faculty Fellow program.

  1. What attracted you to teaching at a community college?
    One of my mentors during graduate school was also a professor at a community college. She encouraged me to seek out teaching opportunities at community colleges. She was and continues to be an advocate for community colleges as a career option for newly minted Ph.D.,’s like myself.
  2. What attracted you to Harper’s Diverse Faculty Fellows program?
    The opportunity to receive mentoring as part of this program was one of the largest draws. As part of the fellowship, I’m mentored by several people - experienced colleagues who provide guidance regarding pedagogy and the subject I teach as well as how to be a successful member of the faculty.
  3. How has being part of the Diverse Faculty Fellows program helped you?
    Harper faculty, staff and students have been extremely warm and welcoming. I have been receiving a great deal of support. The program eases you into the community college environment and teaching. This first semester, I am on campus all week, taking advantage of resources and learning from colleagues, while teaching one course twice a week. I was fortunate that my first class, Biology 101, was a late-start, 12-week class – this gave me a few weeks to warm up to teaching. Rather than being thrown in to the deep end of a very cold pool, I have been able to wade into a nice, comfortable, warm pool.
  4. In your first few weeks, what has surprised you the most about Harper?
    The size of Harper. I was surprised by how large the campus is and how large the natural areas near campus are. As an entomologist having natural areas such as the prairie on campus will make teaching biology a little more tangible, and I hope to take my biology class out this semester.
  5. What is the most interesting part of your job?
    The one-on-one interactions with my students, both in structured classes and just in simple conversations. I like to hear how my students perceive biology and how it influences their everyday lives.
  6. What was your first job?
    I was a lifeguard at my local park district while I was in high school. As a lifeguard, I had a couple of “saves,” which influenced my decision to be a medic in the National Guard.

Learn more about the Diverse Faculty Fellow program.