The philanthropic legacy of Della Martin, who was institutionalized much of her adult life, lives on through postdoctoral fellowships.
In 1993, the Della Martin Foundation made its first gift to Caltech to fund a postdoctoral fellowship in mental health research. Thirty years later, 40 fellows have advanced their research thanks to the foundation's generosity.
"The Della Martin Foundation's sustained support over the last three decades has allowed us to fund postdocs whose research provides new insights into fundamental questions in neuroscience that can help inform our understanding of mental health," says Richard Murray, the Thomas E. and Doris Everhart Professor of Control and Dynamical Systems and Bioengineering and holder of the William K. Bowes Jr. Leadership Chair in the Division of Biology and Biological Engineering.
Finding Hope in Hardship
Della Martin was 28 years old when her family had her committed to the California Department of State Hospitals for hearing the voice of God, says Larry Gould, chair of the foundation's board. She was 73 when her brother, aviation pioneer Glenn Martin, died and she was freed from institutionalization. She received an inheritance from Glenn's estate and, in her last 17 years of life, lived with a companion in San Marino and traveled the world. Before passing away, she dedicated her wealth to the formation of a foundation to support mental health research.
"Della's story is truly one of making lemonade out of lemons," says Gould, who has been involved in with the foundation since its inception in 1974. "The foundation started with less than $2 million and now has more than $10 million in its endowment, plus approximately $30 million in its endowments at Caltech and other universities funding mental health research ."
At Caltech, the foundation established a postdoctoral fellowship program, largely at the urging of then president David Baltimore, now the Judge Shirley Hufstedler Professor of Biology.
"President Baltimore thought postdoctoral fellows were best positioned to initiate new research approaches and explore novel methods of studying and, potentially, treating mental illness," Gould explains.
New Avenues Toward Brain Wellness
Caltech is currently home to three Della Martin Foundation Fellows working on a range of questions related to mental health.
Xi Chen focuses on candidate genetic mutations that show a close correlation in patients with mental disorders, although the biological mechanisms by which these mutations lead to specific disorders remain unknown. In the lab of Carlos Lois, research professor of biology, Chen is investigating the zebra finch, a songbird known for its rich social communication behavior. Since many patients with psychiatric disorders also show impairments in language development and social interactions, Chen and Lois aim to create genetically modified zebra finches carrying those disease mutations so they can study the underlying mechanisms.
"Mental health issues affect a significant portion of people worldwide and have a profound impact on individuals and society," Chen says. "The project I am pursuing would be considered too high risk by conventional funding sources, and without this fellowship, it is unlikely that I would be able to devote my effort toward developing a new animal model to investigate mental health disorders."
In the lab of Michael Dickinson, the Esther M. and Abe M. Zarem Professor of Bioengineering and Aeronautics, Sam Whitehead is exploring the complex neurobiological and biomechanical underpinnings of the wing hinge system in fruit flies (Drosophila) and its role in motor control.
"Support from the Della Martin Foundation has given me a lot of freedom to explore basic research questions," he says. "Ultimately, this work sheds light on the complex mechanisms underlying flight control in fruit flies, which contributes to our understanding of insect behavior and provides a valuable foundation for comprehending the motor control systems that are implicated in neurological diseases."
Yi-Ting Cheng is a fellow in the lab of Sarkis Mazmanian, the Luis B. and Nelly Soux Professor of Microbiology. Mazmanian's work has illuminated the role of the gut microbiome in influencing behavior, offering a promising avenue for alternative treatments for mental illness. Cheng says this compelling research direction prompted her decision to pursue postdoctoral research at Caltech, with a particular focus on the interactions between a stressed brain and the gut microbiome.
"I have personally witnessed the profound impact of stress on both physical and mental well-being, including my own quality of life," Cheng says. "I was thrilled when I found out that the Della Martin Foundation, whose mission aligns with my research interests, had chosen to fund my postdoctoral research. Their support for researchers in the early stages of their careers boosts my confidence in my research and provides me with solid funding to start my project."
A Widening Legacy
Kenta Asahina, a Della Martin Foundation Fellow from 2009 to 2010, also says the fellowship gave him confidence in his own research. Getting funding for his basic research using the common fruit fly, he notes, taught him the importance of pursuing his own scientific passion.
"The support from the Della Martin Fellowship was critical for my successful completion of postdoc training and a landmark publication," says Asahina, who is now an associate professor in the Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory at the Salk Institute. "What I accomplished during my postdoc training opened the opportunity for me to continue neuroscience research as an independent investigator."
Asahina is one of 37 former Della Martin Foundation Postdoctoral Fellows in Mental Health, many of whom have established their own labs across the country and around the world.
"Brain research is so complicated, and over the years the Della Martin Foundation Postdoctoral Fellows have undertaken very innovative work in trying to understand how the brain functions and how to address problems when the brain is not working as it should," Gould says. "The labs they've built, the labs they are working in, and the research studies—both past and present—are very impressive."