This Anchorage high school student is already working to cure cancer

We parents are often left to wonder if any of the words of wisdom we impart to our children sink in. If there's any evidence that such lessons aren't wasted, it's Anchorage high school student Michael Martinez. The 16-year-old Service High School sophomore just won the Emperor Science Award, a prestigious science research award offered through PBS Learning Media and Stand Up to Cancer.

Even when Michael was very young, his mother, Mary Martinez, knew something was different. When other children were scrambling to climb and tumble, Michael would stay to the side, push his glasses into position on his small face, cinch up the shoulder straps of his backpack and go find a spot to read or play with his toys. This disciplined, observant kid seemed to be an old soul.

"I provided enrichment, a safe place to live and food to eat. The rest was Michael," Martinez said of her son's drive for excellence during an interview this week. But Martinez did a lot more than just that. She provided opportunities -- camps, activities, tutors. She held him back from the karate lessons he so desperately wanted until he was 7 years old so that he could acquire other skills, like patience, before he started. She surrounded him with positive role models. Perhaps most important, she taught Michael that his potential is his to own, that he needs to make the decision to nurture and honor it, and that to fully realize it, he must gather lessons from others every step of the way.

In elementary and middle school, Michael was already starting to shine. He won science fairs, first with an experiment demonstrating how weight and length affected the throwing distance of an atlatl, a traditional hunting spear used by Alaska Natives, and later with another weapon, the ballista, an ancient Roman catapult. By eighth grade, he had become interested in robotics. And again, he took home an award, this time for design.

He was also busy taking to heart what others had to say. Michael can still recall the words of his seventh and eighth grade teacher, Brett Bissell: "Always take notes. Pay attention. Be observant. You are important."

A poster with the quote "While most dream of success, winners wake up and work hard to achieve it" hangs over the door to Bissell's classroom.

"I try to impart this ideal to all my students and Michael exemplifies it," said Bissell, who remembers Michael as "a natural leader, a very motivated learner and a quality young man."


While Michael racked up accomplishments in school, his talent for martial arts was also flourishing. Last year, at the U.S. open in Orlando, he took first place in mixed martial arts for 15-year-olds.

Michael is now a standout student at Service High School and its specialized Biomedical Career Academy. He also receives ongoing mentoring through the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program.

Through the career academy, Michael has already worked on a project about how secondhand stress, like family financial strain or difficult relationships, affects young people (hint: it's not good). And he's thinking he'd like to be a biomedical engineer when he grows up. That is, if martial arts or Hollywood stardom don't beckon first.

On top of everything else he has going for him, Michael is quietly cultivating a modeling and acting career. Gregarious and handsome with a wide, easy smile, dark hair and dark eyes, the nearly 6-foot-tall teenager of Yup'ik and Mexican heritage just might make it. His mother is open to the idea, with the admonition that Michael not allow a potential career in Hollywood to sideline his academic pursuits.

The world is Michael's to explore. And while he may choose where to go, he has no intention of going there alone. He believes his success traces back to every person who has ever helped him, taught him or offered him advice.

"The people around you -- those are the people who help make you too," Michael said in an interview earlier this week.

His mother? She taught him to make the choice to succeed.

His grandmother? To listen to everyone, and that you never know when or from whom you will hear something that you need to hold on to. When you do hear it, take it in and make good use of it.

His family? To take care of others.

His martial arts teachers? To be disciplined and observant.

To everyone: Michael got the messages.

Michael "immediately stood out as a quiet leader. He is well-liked by his classmates and definitely a role model for many students in our academy," said Kaity Williamson, one of Michael's teachers at Service High School. "He is one of those kids (who) makes teaching so incredibly rewarding. He is hard working, passionate and, most importantly, compassionate."

When Michael travels for martial arts competitions, he carries hand-blown glass beads with him for the "Beads of Courage" program, which gives the beads to sick children as encouragement. Every time time Michael makes a personal accomplishment or reaches a milestone, he writes a few uplifting words down to accompany the beads on their way back to a child.

His own family has also known illness. His grandfather died of liver cancer and his grandmother successfully underwent treatment for colon cancer. As he looks to his future, Michael hopes that a career in biomedicine will allow him to blend his love of technology and medicine with effective research to create real advances that offer meaningful benefits to real people. This drive and community-mindedness came through loud and clear in Michael's application for the cancer research award, announced last week.

"He has a sense of wanting to help and wanting to be involved in people's lives," said Andrea Roberson, a consultant for the Emperor Science Awards. "He talked a lot about how people needed to work together, about how researchers cannot be isolated and work alone."

The Emperor Science Award pairs a high school student with a university-level scientist for an in-depth research project. It also provides a $1,500 stipend, a computer notebook and an opportunity for a second year if the student is successful and interested. Michael has been paired with an Oregon-based ophthalmology professor. Of 1,200 applicants, 100 students from 40 states were selected for the program's inaugural year. All the mentors are volunteers, and the program evolved from the Ken Burns documentary "Cancer: The Emperor of all Maladies."

It's fair to say Michael Martinez, the once curious little boy with a backpack, has come a long way. He got there by reaching for the wisdom so many of us miss, by searching for knowledge and inspiration in people, and by using what he finds to strengthen and light his way.


I'm glad I met him this week. He gives me hope that my own children are listening. And I'll be able to say, "I knew him when ... "

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Jill Burke

Jill Burke is a former writer and columnist for Alaska Dispatch News.