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Zuleyma Tang-Martinez devotes life to studying animal behavior

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 5, 2012 - Growing up in Venezuela in the 1940s and '50s, Zuleyma Tang-Martinez lived a semi-nomadic life in ethnically segregated camps operated by an American oil company. "The American camps were very nice; the Venezuelan camps were not," Tang-Martinez recalled.

But her father was the oil company's accountant and unofficial translator, so the Tang-Martinez family was permitted to live in the American camps, moving to a new camp every two or three years. All of the camps were located far from cities near rainforests where iguana, tarantulas, crabs, snakes and scorpions abounded.

For a time, the family even lived on a small island in the Orinoco River Delta. "We would sometime visit nearby Indian tribes that were living a very traditional life," Tang-Martinez said.

She loved it all.

Years later, she would study, research and teach about many of the animals she had lived among in Venezuela, including the capybara, the world's largest rodent.

For The Love Of Science

Tang-Martinez has spent her entire career at the University of Missouri-St. Louis since arriving in 1976. Upon her retirement from full-time work on Sept. 1, she was named Founders Professor of Biology which will allow her to teach one semester a year for three years and perform other services, including being on the search committee to find her replacement.

For the past 35 years, her work as an animal behaviorist has been devoted entirely to basic or "pure" research rather than applied research, which sets out to "fix" a problem.

"The intellectual excitement of finding out how the world works is what made me become a scientist," Tang-Martinez said. "If I do something that has a positive application for humans, that's great, but I don't necessarily feel I have to have research relate to humans. Research lets you test your beliefs and generates new knowledge which can influence or change the direction of the field."

Patricia Parker, chair of UMSL's Department of Biology, said Tang-Martinez ws the primary reason she came to the university 12 years ago. Parker still admires Tang-Martinez's science.

"Zuleyma's recent research has re-evaluated the research of others," Parker said, "and she has found that some studies were built on a house of cards."

One such study was Bateman's principle which, using fruit flies, theorized that males gain greater reproductive benefit from multiple sex partners than females.

Tang-Martinez appears to have successfully debunked that theory.

"The whole field has now accepted that they need to look at foundations again in the field of sexual attraction," Parker said.

Social Animals

Tang-Martinez's lab research has continuously focused on the social behavior of animals and dispersal: whether, how and when animals leave their primary groups to strike out on their own. Both areas, she maintains, are crucial to understanding evolution and conservation efforts.

She and B. Diane Chepko-Sade co-edited a book of studies on the role of dispersal in animals and its importance to conservation of wildlife and zoo populations. "Mammalian Dispersal Patterns: The Effects of Social Structure on Population Genetics" detailed research on dispersal of horses, elephant seals, wolves, mongooses and a number of primates, showing that the population size needed to maintain genetic variability can differ greatly from one species to the next.

For two years, Tang-Martinez supervised a doctoral student in Venezuela, in collaboration with another scientist, in studying firsthand how the capybara, an extremely social animal, formed social groups and its dispersal pattern.

Among their findings: virtually all young males leave their birth group to join and mate with others in a new group when they are "juveniles" (about a year old). This and similar research on smaller rodents, helps to provide additional guidance and focus in studying inbreeding in humans.

"Incest-avoidance is common in animals; they won't mate with close relatives," said Tang-Martinez.

Her primary interest in the area of animal social behavior, however, has always been chemical communication.

"My very first Ph.D. research was work on how animals communicate by using odors," she said. "It was thought that odors either had a sexual or territorial function. I started looking at Mongolian gerbils and saw things that didn't fit with territoriality."

She started to test that odors are individually different.

"In many mammals, we found that individuals recognize their relatives through individual odors," Tang-Martinez said.

It has long been known that humans have individual odors, Tang-Martinez said, citing the ability of dogs to follow a human scent.

"Now we know that humans have individual odors we don't consciously detect, but which are important to human interaction," she added.

One such interaction: breastfeeding. Babies recognize their mothers by the smell of their breast milk and the area around the nipples.

A Cosmopolitan Life

Tang-Martinez, 66, was born in Ciudad Bolivar, Venezuela, the oldest of three girls. From the beginning, she had her feet firmly planted in two worlds.

"As I was growing up I had a double life - a very Catholic, traditional home where we spoke Spanish - and friends who were Americans from all kinds of backgrounds," Tang-Martinez said.

She learned to speak English at 7, the same year she moved to Tulsa, Okla., with her family when her father received a two-year U.S. work assignment.

She returned to the U.S. in 1960 to attend high school because the camp schools only went to the ninth grade. Her parents sent her to a Catholic boarding school in Tampa, Fla. It was the first time she was fully aware of racial discrimination.

"Growing up, that was just the way it was," Tang-Martinez said.

Her parents expected her to return to Venezuela after high school, "set for life as a receptionist or a laboratory technician at the oil company."

Instead, the nuns helped her complete college applications and she was accepted at Saint Louis University, where she received her degree in biology in 1967. She earned a master's degree in zoology in 1970, and her Ph.D. in zoology in 1974, both from the University of California Berkeley.

Tang-Martinez came to UMSL as an assistant professor of biology following two years of post-doctoral work at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver. She would become the first woman and first Hispanic woman to receive tenure and be promoted to full professor in her department at UMSL. She has taught university courses in Mexico and Venezuela and maintains research partnerships with Venezuelan colleagues.

No Fear

Ironically, in the '80s, Tang-Martinez developed a severe allergic reaction to rodents. She began working with snakes. She was fascinated by them and treated them with respect. But there was no fear, despite her home being invaded by a bushmaster, a large, deadly poisonous snake, when she was 5. It hissed at her mother and a neighbor shot it.

But spiders were another story. Like her father, she was terrified of them. A grad school friend helped her overcome her arachnophobia.

"Now I'm playing surrogate mom to a bunch of spiders," Tang-Martinez laughed.

She describes her latest research project as "a 'field study' being conducted on a natural population of brown recluses living in the basement of my house." The recluses are highly poisonous, but very timid, and extremely common in St. Louis, particularly in older houses.

Most research to date has focused on antidotes for the spider's venom. Tang-Martinez is collecting basic information that can contribute to biological control of what she calls a "terrestrial sit and wait predator," who often crawls under things and likes hiding in the dirty laundry of its unsuspecting victims.

Proud Latina

For her research, writing and teaching, Tang-Martinez has received numerous honors. She was recently named one of the top eight Hispanic academics in the nation by Hispanic Business magazine.

Thomas F. George, UMSL's chancellor, said: "Professor Zuleyma Tang-Martinez is an outstanding faculty leader, extraordinary researcher and inspiring instructor. We are all most proud of her success, and she is certainly deserving of this splendid recognition."

This year, she was also elected an Animal Behavior Society (ABS) fellow and was an Invited Inaugural Lecturer at San Francisco State University's series on women and science. Last year, she received the ABS Quest Award.

In 2008, she received the Woman Trailblazer Award, and in 2007, she was honored with ABS's Exceptional Service Career Award. In 1995, she received the Educational Equity Award for Higher Education from the St. Louis Educational Equity Coalition and was named the O'Neil Ray Collins Distinguished Minority Scientist by Scientists of Color at the University of California Berkeley.

Tang-Martinez pauses when her many awards are mentioned, but after some contemplation, volunteers her particular pride in honors that acknowledge her ethnicity.

"I'm very aware of being Latina," Tang-Martinez said. "One thing that has been very important to me and that I am very aware of is that I can be a role model for younger Hispanics and Latinos, as well as for minorities in general, that are likely to form part of the next generation of scientists.

"If I were not recognized for my science, I wouldn't have been recognized as a Latina," she added. "The recognition as a scientist brought me to the recognition of Latino organizations looking for people distinguished in their fields and who are dedicated to other minorities."

Tang-Martinez served as the first and only Hispanic woman president of the Animal Behavior Society 1993-94, and was chair of the Division of Animal Behavior for the American Society of Zoologists 1990-1992.

A much sought-after presenter at scientific conferences, she has edited three books, written dozens of articles and book chapters and written nearly a dozen external grants to support her work.

Social Justice

In the mid-'90s, she began volunteering with the Alzheimer's Association after witnessing the effects of the disease on her father and her partner's mother.

"She came seeking services and decided to become involved," said Carroll Rodriguez, chief operating officer for the St. Louis chapter of the association. "She is a wonderful volunteer who has matched advocacy with outreach, helping us to better understand the needs of people in the Hispanic community."

In 2002, Tang-Martinez received the Alzheimer's Association-St. Louis Chapter Volunteer of the Year award.

In 1986, she founded PREP (Privacy Rights Education Project), a gay rights organization. It went statewide and was renamed PROMO.

A true "child of the '60s," she has always fought for the politics of social justice.

She worked on Bobby Kennedy's campaign; his assassination helped shape her political beliefs. "It solidified my commitment toward civil rights and equal rights," Tang-Martinez said.

Years later, she would take off every Monday afternoon during the entire fall semester to work on Barack Obama's presidential campaign before the 2008 election.


Tang-Martinez hasn't exactly gotten the hang of a reduced workload.

Clad in the comfortable clothes of an animal behaviorist on the Friday after Thanksgiving, she was happily puttering around the office she was excited her new position let her keep. She pointed out some of the many professional-quality animal photos on her walls, bragging on some of her grad students' presentation posters that lined the hallways through which she sprinted.

But a long-ago choice is now in full effect.

"I made a decision that I wasn't going to let research be my entire life," Tang-Martinez said.

Now she'll spend more time doing Tai Chi Chen; taking pictures; birding; hiking; collecting animal postage stamps and African, Native American and Venezuelan art; reading and perhaps catching more movies, plays and concerts.

More visits to her sister Yajarayma "Yaya" Tang-Feldman, who works at the University of California-Davis, and to her sister Morayma Tang-Martinez, who lives in Venezuela, may be in the offing.

Tang-Martinez lives in University City with her partner of 28 years, Arlene Zarembka, an estate planning and elder law attorney whom she married during a vacation to Golden, British Columbia in 2005. Chispa, a 52-pound mutt, lives with them.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.

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