Martin grew up in the small, dusty market town of Victoria in rural Cameroon, a West African country of eight million where Plasmodium falciparum (malaria) kills more children each year than any other disease.
A fortunate survivor on a continent where malaria kills a million children annually, Martin fell in love with biological research in high school the first time he looked through a microscope at a colony of furiously paddling protozoa.
"I knew from a very early age that I wanted to study science and medicine," he said during a recent interview in his laboratory and office at the Walter Reed Institute. "As a kid, I loved soccer--like most other boys in Cameroon-- but I loved science even more.
"I couldn't wait to get to school each day, so that I could learn more about the biology of frogs, insects, and human beings."
After finishing his public school education in California-sized Cameroon, Martin headed off to neighboring Nigeria to begin pre-med training at a regional university. And it was there--while studying biology and anatomy--that he was tapped for a special academic program that would change his life.
Along with half a dozen other West African students, he won an all-expense-paid scholarship (funded by the United Nations and the U.S. State Department); that scholarship allowed Martin to attend Reed College.
Assisted by a host family in Portland, the gangly 19-year-old arrived for classes in the fall of 1967. "Soon I moved into a brand-new dorm on the other side of the canyon," he recalls today, "and the real struggle began. For those first two years, I struggled just to stay alive academically.
"Somehow, I managed to get through. I joined the soccer team, and that helped a great deal. I made some wonderful friends there, and my host family was very good to me; we still communicate frequently today.
"But it was hard, very hard! Everything was swirling around me . . . the Vietnam War protests, the SDS [Students for a Democratic Society, an antiwar group active on campus]. Joan Baez came to campus to sing about the war. And there I was, looking at all of this from an African perspective.
"I'm sure I completely missed the point, most of the time. I struggled. I spent most of my time in the library or in the lab. I worked very hard. And the wonderful thing was the way that my advisers encouraged me, the way they began to believe in me."
After two years of undergraduate work at Reed, Martin was accepted into an accelerated medical school program at Washington University in St. Louis, one of the nation's most high-powered medical schools. Would the "soccer striker" from Cameroon measure up?