NIAMS Scientists – Diverse Backgrounds, Shared Goals

September 25, 2013 (historical)

A Conversation with NIAMS Scientist Dr. Martin Pelletier

Photo of Dr. Martin Pelletier
Martin Pelletier, Ph.D.

Martin Pelletier, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow in the Autoimmunity Branch in the Intramural Research Program at the NIAMS where he conducts research on the rare genetic disease called TNF Receptor-Associated Periodic Syndrome (TRAPS). He completed his undergraduate studies in biochemistry at the Université du Québec à Montréal in Montreal, Canada. He earned both a master's degree in Experimental Health Sciences and a doctorate degree in Virology-Immunology at INRS-Institut Armand-Frappier in Laval, Canada. In his interview, Dr. Pelletier discusses his lifelong love of science, his international research experience, and the importance of diversity in research.

Where did you receive your research training?

I did an internship on inflammation and physiology of granulocytes at INRS-Institut Armand-Frappier in 1998 in the laboratory of Dr. Denis Girard. Then I worked in the lab until 2006 while completing my M.Sc. in Experimental Health Sciences and then my Ph.D. in Virology-Immunology. During my graduate studies, I evaluated the functional responses of human neutrophils to pollutants and cytokines. While still working for Dr. Girard, I joined the laboratory of Dr. Marco A. Cassatella at the University of Verona in Italy from September 2005 to March 2009, where I evaluated the interactions between neutrophils and cells from the adaptive immune system and demonstrated the direct interaction between human neutrophils and Th17 cells. I came to the laboratory of Dr. Richard M. Siegel, who is now the NIAMS Clinical Director, in May 2009. At the NIAMS, I have expanded my expertise to include the autoinflammatory disease TRAPS. Currently, we are working to understand the inflammatory processes involved in this disease.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Ile Perrot, an island of nearly 33,000 people, located west of Montreal in the province of Québec, which is the only Canadian province that has a predominantly French speaking population.

What led you to become involved in scientific research and academia?

As far back as I can remember, I have always been fascinated with science. As a young child, I wanted to become an astronaut. As I grew older, this changed to the broader aspiration of scientist. For one of my birthdays, I asked for and received a chemistry kit, a microscope and a telescope. Since then, all of my academic and career choices have led me to scientific research in academia and here at the NIH.

What or who influenced you to pursue a career in science?

My mother always helped me to be the best I could be at school and supported all of my academic choices. Throughout high school and my undergraduate studies, teachers and professors continued to engage and inspire me, leading to a genuine enjoyment and interest in both science and research.

Was there a defining moment that led you to a career in science?

It was the moment I was accepted for my summer internship in the laboratory of Dr. Girard. From my first day, I knew I would spend the rest of my career in a laboratory.

What is the focus of your research?

I study the inflammatory processes involved in a rare genetic disease called TRAPS. This is an autoinflammatory disorder characterized by recurrent, prolonged episodes of fever along with abdominal pain, skin rashes and arthritis. It is caused by mutations in the gene coding for TNF receptor 1 (TNFR1), which binds tumor necrosis factor (TNF), a key cytokine (molecular messenger) that promotes inflammation. Our group recently observed that reactive oxygen species produced by mitochondria, the cells’ energy factories, are involved in the uncontrolled inflammation observed in TRAPS patients. Since then, I have been trying to understand why the mitochondria are deregulated in this disease.

What is your area of expertise?

Over the past 15 years, I have developed a strong expertise in innate immunity and inflammation, especially in neutrophils, the most abundant type of white blood cell in mammals. These cells are the first ones to be recruited to the site of injury, within minutes following trauma, and are the hallmark of acute inflammation.

What do you enjoy about your career?

It may be cliché, but I really enjoy making hypotheses and proving them right or wrong. I like designing experiments that answer a specific question and obtaining results that often open new paths to explore that we have not considered before.

What have been the most rewarding or fulfilling aspects of your career?

The most rewarding aspect of my career just happened recently. I will continue my research as a principal investigator next year, as I have been offered an assistant professor position at Laval University in Québec City (Canada). I am very excited about this new step in my career.

What have been the most challenging aspects of your career?

I would say living abroad for 3 1/2 years when I did my first post-doc in Italy. It took me awhile to appreciate living in a country with a different lifestyle and a different culture. I was really homesick. Being away from my girlfriend, who was doing her graduate studies back in Montreal, was the worst. But I made new friends, both in and outside the laboratory, and I have been able to travel in many European countries. Overall, I did enjoy this experience.

What activities do you enjoy outside of work?

I love to play with my 20-month-old son. On weekends, we go to the park and the swimming pool. I am amazed at how he learns new things so quickly. I also enjoy golf and reading when I have the time.

Can you offer any advice for people who wish to pursue a career in science?

Never give up. Science is tough, but very rewarding. Also, don't be afraid to ask questions, as there are no stupid questions.

Why is it important for people from diverse backgrounds to participate in research, both as investigators and as patients?

Diversity is essential to bring new points of view to research, as people from diverse backgrounds look at problems differently depending on their cultural and educational background. Completing my post-doctoral studies in Italy helped me to realize the importance of bringing these different points of view together to take research to the next level. Also, it is important to have patients from diverse backgrounds in order to understand the impact of regional genetic and lifestyle variations on health and disease.