Sickle cell disease researcher, officer with the U.S. Public Health Service
Her story: Iman Martin is a Genetic Epidemiologist and Program Director in the Division of Blood Diseases and Resources at NHLBI, where she helps to oversee the Brazil Transfusion Safety Research Program, a component of the Recipient Epidemiology and Donor Evaluation-IV-Pediatric (REDS-IV-P) program, which was established to evaluate and improve the safety and availability of the blood supply as well as the safety and effectiveness of transfusion therapies, with attention to not only adults but also neonates and children who need transfusion. The REDS-IV-P Brazil Transfusion Safety Program includes one of the world’s largest cohorts of people with sickle cell disease. As part of her job, Martin manages research programs to improve the safety and effectiveness of transfusion practices—work that is certainly important to the sickle cell disease community because people with the disease are among the most widely transfused groups.
Martin, who also is a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Public Health Service, never really planned early on to study sickle cell disease, specifically. But growing up in a multi-ethnic neighborhood in Philadelphia, which was diverse racially and culturally, piqued her interest. “I was aware of sickle cell, knew people who had the disease, and knew people who succumbed to it,” she said. In her community, people viewed illness in unique ways, often focusing on the interconnection between mind, body, and spirit. Because of that, her interest in the complexity of disease—and also its relationship to heritage—grew. And it informs her work today. “I’m passionate about how ancestry, race, ethnicity, and place impact transfusion medicine outcomes,” she explained, “particularly in those with sickle cell.”
Transformative moment: After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, where she double- majored in African Studies and Health and Societies, Martin earned a master’s degree at the University of Ghana School of Public Health. Her experience in Ghana was life-changing, as her interests in African culture, ancestry genetics, and complex diseases all merged. Martin said visiting patients at Komfo Anokye and Korle Bu hospitals in Ghana acquainted her firsthand with the challenges of treating the disease. “That put sickle cell in my heart,” she said. Martin later went on to earn a second master’s degree, this time from the University of Michigan, and a Doctorate in Epidemiology from University of Illinois at Chicago.
Her motivator: “I’m inspired by the strength that people with sickle cell exhibit,” Martin said. “They make it through pain often unseen by others. Their fight is an inspiration for researchers. I personally may not be standing at the lab bench, but I’m helping scientists improve the health of people with sickle cell disease and move toward a cure.”
Her dream: “I hope that advances in genomics and genetics eventually allow for a cure for sickle cell that is accessible to all who need it,” Martin said. She acknowledged that much progress has been made in the treatment of sickle cell disease. She is particularly grateful for the Cure Sickle Cell Initiative, an NHLBI-led collaborative research effort launched in 2018 that will accelerate the development of genetic therapies to cure sickle cell disease. “There is more work to be done and I am humbled to be a part of the fight,” she said.