May 18, 2016 — Yardley Martinez, the Valedictorian of the Bronx Community College Class of 2016, grew up fascinated by all things scientific.
“I came from a family that was pretty religious, so I was looking for answers. Science offered me answers that I couldn’t get from religion.”
Looking for those answers took the Manhattan-born chemistry major first to a middle school that made regular visits to the American Museum of Natural History. From there he went to the Bronx High School of Science and from there New York University. But a bad experience in his freshman year prompted him to put his education on hold.
Several years of temporary, off-the-books work followed. He hung blinds and sometimes served as a carpenter’s assistant. The sheer drudgery of his last job made him reassess where he was going — or wasn’t. “I was cleaning brass — and brass tarnishes the moment you look at it look at it. It was a thankless, mindless job. And I thought ‘This is not my life — I have to go back to college’.”
And so at 26, he entered Bronx Community College at the start of the Spring 2014 semester — the only college that allowed him in as late as he had applied. “Every other community closed their doors, but Bronx Community College has its doors open all the time. So it was my only choice — but it was also the best choice. It offered me opportunities that I thought were closed to me. I didn’t think I’d be in a position where I would be doing research. And I couldn’t have gotten that if I hadn’t come here.”
That opportunity is the STEM Scholars Research Program BCC runs with Lehman College. Yardley was a part of it last summer. “I had fun,” Yardley recalls. “I learned a lot. It made my dream of being a researcher a reality.” He so impressed one professor that she asked him to continue working with her during the school year. “Rather than saying ‘Oh, I wish I was working in a lab,’ I actually am working in a lab now. I can take that experience with me and be a stronger candidate for any position.”
Right now Yardley is researching how a toxic element is absorbed into the grains we eat — a particular problem in developing countries. But his interest in environmental issues is guided by a researcher’s skepticism. “If you are against GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) tell me why and show me proof. If you are against vaccines, tell me why and show me proof. That’s what I want.”
Yardley has also taken advantage of BCC’s participation in the Salzburg Seminars in Austria, which he attended last spring, hearing lectures on a broad range of topics, from the role of corporations in society to the Holocaust. He was urged to apply by Professor Andrew Rowan. He credits Dr. Rowan and Dr. Neal Phillip of the BCC Department of Chemistry for their influence on his academic career. “They saw something in me that I didn’t see myself.”
It is also at BCC where Yardley developed an interest in classical music. A music class he took in his first year included a mind-opening visit to the Metropolitan Opera. “A significant amount of the music I love is strictly liturgical,” Yardley notes. “I love the masses, requiems and other religious works. People who know me find this odd, since I tend to have a wholly science-oriented worldview.”
The same 4.0 grade point average that made Yardley this year’s Valedictorian (he will address the graduating class at Commencement on June 3) qualified him for the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society — and will no doubt open doors for him when he finally gets an acceptance to his school of choice, where he will pursue a B.A. in chemistry, biochemistry or plant sciences. The children of Mexican immigrants, he and his brother are the first generation in his family to go to college. His long-term goals — a Master’s, a Ph.d. and a career in the field he loves.
“We stand to learn a lot from science and how it can better our lives,” says Yardley — and he is already proving it.