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      HomeLatest newsCaring & givingMeet a nurse who leads clinical trials to find innovative cancer therapies

      Meet a nurse who leads clinical trials to find innovative cancer therapies

      Melissa Martinez is a clinical scientist within Johnson & Johnson’s Interventional Oncology R&D group. Not only is she helping to develop lifesaving treatments, she’s redefining what it means to pursue a career in nursing.

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      Melissa Martinez headshot, Director, Clinical Project Scientist Leader within the company's Interventional Oncology Research and Development (R&D) group
      Several years ago, Melissa Martinez was cheering on her youngest daughter at a school basketball game when another player had a seizure. The game came to a standstill, with teammates and coaches unsure what to do.

      “My mom’s a nurse! She can help!” Martinez’s daughter called out to the crowd. Martinez had already sprung into action, jumping out of her seat and making her way down the bleachers to assist the player until paramedics could arrive.

      Martinez says she often puts her nursing know-how to practical use outside of a clinical setting. “At my kids’ games, on flights and at family events—I always volunteer to help if medical assistance is needed.”

      Martinez’s career as a nurse is a testament to her dedication to assisting others. After earning a bachelor’s degree in nursing, she landed a position as a bedside nurse taking care of cancer patients in a hospital oncology unit.

      After that first job, Martinez—who went on to earn a Master’s degree—traded bedside nursing for an outpatient nurse practitioner role. She then pivoted to a new path: a career as a clinical scientist in cancer research. She worked at two different pharmaceutical companies before joining Johnson & Johnson. After four years with Johnson & Johnson Innovative Medicine, she recently transitioned into her new position as Director, Clinical Project Scientist Leader within the company’s Interventional Oncology Research and Development (R&D) group.

      When I was coming up as a nurse, treatment development was never presented to me as a career path. Everything was related to inpatient hospital care or community-based care.
      Melissa Martinez, RN, MSN
      Director, Clinical Project Scientist Leader, Johnson & Johnson Innovative Medicine
      Among her accomplishments with Johnson & Johnson Innovative Medicine, Martinez was a Lead Study Responsible Scientist for a landmark oncology clinical trial that investigated a new treatment for a form of non-small cell lung cancer. Since January, she’s been a lead clinical scientist investigating new intratumoral therapies for solid tumors.

      In her position at the forefront of oncology clinical trials, Martinez is an example of the expanding role of nurses and the various settings in which they can leverage their knowledge, skills and influence to create impact. That can be from bedside at hospitals to on the ground at community health clinics, hospitals and schools and even behind a computer working on the development of new treatments for cancer patients. “In cancer research, I found that I was still helping patients, just in a different way,” she says.

      To commemorate National Nurses Month, Martinez describes what first attracted her to a nursing career, how she pivoted from directly helping patients to leading clinical trials and how she’s committed to broadening the possibilities for nurses and the nursing profession.


      Growing up, what was the earliest clue that you would one day be helping to develop new cancer treatments?


      As a kid I liked science, but I wasn’t sure where to channel that interest. I became a biology major at The College of New Jersey because it was broad enough to help me find a more specific direction.

      Then, during my first semester, my freshman orientation class would meet every week with deans from different academic departments. The dean from the school of nursing totally won me over. They explained that as an RN, I wouldn’t be limited to working in one specific specialty for my whole career. I’d have the opportunity to go from cardiology to oncology to emergency medicine or any other specialty of interest. The opportunities were endless, and I knew that I would never get bored. I think that’s what appealed to me the most.


      What was your first nursing position like?


      On the oncology unit of a local hospital, I had an opportunity to learn about all the different specialties within oncology. I cared for patients who had solid tumor malignancies such as lung cancer, breast cancer and melanoma, as well as hematologic malignancies like leukemia, lymphoma and multiple myeloma.

      I worked with both pediatric and adult oncology patients. Some patients were my age, and it gave me such an appreciation for life and my health—things we sometimes take for granted. Some days were harder than others. When you are hospital-based, you tend to see the patients who aren’t doing so well. Even when a patient passed away, I made sure that they were comfortable and they were with the people they loved at the very end. That was very rewarding.


      How did you transition from bedside nursing to working as a clinical scientist?


      A patient in the hospital was very appreciative of how I took care of her and asked if I would ever consider a position as a clinical scientist at a local pharmaceutical company where she worked. The company was looking for oncology nurses, so I would be a perfect fit. After taking a couple of days to think about it, I decided to apply for the job.

      It was an unexpected switch, but after you see so many patients being diagnosed with cancer, and some fail all the available treatment options, what can you do next? Next is working on new treatments so doctors and nurses will have fewer conversations that end with “there are no other treatment options that I can offer you at this time.”

      As I transitioned to becoming a clinical scientist, I was able to leverage my experiences as an oncology nurse in my new role. It can be extremely challenging for patients in clinical trials who find themselves navigating a new cancer diagnosis and juggling several medical appointments. My experience as a nurse helps me understand this, and I work with our core study team to minimize the number of visits and study-required procedures as much as possible. We want to make the experience of being on a clinical trial manageable for the patients, their families and their medical team.


      What is a typical work day like?


      There is no typical work day! It takes a large cross-functional team to run global oncology trials, so every day is a little different.

      Along with a physician, I’m ultimately one of the key clinical team members who is responsible for the startup, execution and closeout of a trial. We take responsibility for data and study participant safety. We lead the clinical efforts to get us to the final analysis and submission to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). We’re constantly monitoring data and in communication with sites across the globe. We review detailed case presentations about patients and look at trends in safety as well as efficacy. Now that I’m in this role, I see everything that goes on in the background of drug development.


      What is one of your proudest achievements?


      Melissa Martinez, Director, Clinical Project Scientist Leader within the company's Interventional Oncology Research and Development (R&D) Group, at the ESMO 2023 Congress in Madrid

      I was able to represent my team at a Presidential Symposium at the European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO) 2023 Congress in Madrid. I was in a room with hundreds of people, all there to hear the results of our Phase III lung cancer trial, which I had been working on for the last three and a half years.

      At the end of the presentation, people stood and started clapping; it almost brought tears to my eyes, as it was the culmination of such great work by the team. As a clinical scientist for almost 10 years now, I can tell you that we put our heart and soul into our work. It was an amazing feeling to see other oncology professionals from all over the world show such enthusiasm and appreciation for the results of our study.


      How has the role of nurses changed since you began your career?


      When I was coming up as a nurse, treatment development was never presented to me as a career path. Everything was related to inpatient hospital care or community-based care.

      I speak to a lot of students now as part of a mentorship program here at Johnson & Johnson, and I tell them that nurses are highly sought out for these types of roles because we have a great clinical background. We also understand the patient experience, which brings huge value to a team.


      How is health equity an important part of your work?


      It’s extremely important when planning for the execution of a clinical trial. As scientists we understand that people may experience the same disease differently, and it’s our obligation as researchers to make clinical trials accessible for diverse patient populations. Diversity in clinical trials is also necessary to develop new effective treatments for patients. We do our best to ensure that our global research footprint is diverse and inclusive of people of different ages, genders, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds.


      What’s the best professional advice you’ve received?


      Do what you love. Despite how hard the days get, you’ll want to keep pushing through because you’re passionate about it. For me, it’s all about helping patients and their families.


      What do you do in your downtime?


      Melissa Martinez with her husband and two daughters in a family group photo

      I go to fitness classes that I joke are my 45 minutes of torture—cardio, weight training and full-body workouts. This May I celebrated my two-year anniversary of committing to group fitness classes 3 to 6 days per week. I’m probably in the best health and shape that I’ve been in since college.

      Family is really important to me; I love spending time with my husband and two daughters. It makes me emotional to talk about it because our family dynamic will be changing soon—my oldest daughter is going to college in the fall.

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