King of the Animal Planet

Roberto E. Martinez, 26, refuses to conform to the “nerdy scientist” stereotype, which is why the young Harvard physicist jumped at the chance to be featured on Animal Planet’s new reality TV series, “Chasing Nature.”

“I want to be the person that makes science cool,” says Martinez, who is working on a doctorate in engineering and applied sciences. “Like a basketball star or a rapper or something—but a string theorist.”

The “Chasing Nature” episode featuring Martinez—which airs on January 31—certainly has its “cool” moments.

The show, an advance copy of which was obtained by The Crimson, is a bit like a grown-up version of Odyssey of the Mind. Four young scientists from across the country come together to try to recreate a facet of nature—with nothing but their engineering skills to help them.

Okay, so they get a little help. There is an elaborate special effects studio and a consultant named Arthur, who seems to log quite a few hours in and around the studio. But otherwise, the young engineers must go it alone.

Martinez and his group faced a formidable task: Recreate with man-made materials a vicious scorpion’s tail on a grander scale—and affix the giant hinged metal contraption atop a dune buggy. The result is something out of Real World/Road Rules Challenge, with the scorpion-tail dune buggy chasing around smaller dune buggies in the “kill zone” in an attempt to pop the large balloons attached to the smaller buggies. It’s complicated.

Martinez sported a light pink polo shirt for most of the show, and—along with a female engineer from California—dominated the episode in terms of air time. Dubbed “the brains of the team” by a Stanford co-star, Martinez says he used his solid background in mathematical physics to help a team more versed in mechanical engineering.

“It was my chance to really use the tools I had gathered in the classroom for the real world,” he says.

But based on Martinez’s descriptions, the stars’ all-expenses-paid escapades out and about in Sydney, Australia, sound like they would have made for good television as well. (Sadly, the antics were not taped.)

Ever confident, Martinez describes the behind-the-scenes tension between himself and the Stanford engineering student, which manifested itself only in strained high-fives on camera.

“We made a pact to not let it show up in the show,” he says. “We got all of our bad blood out of the way outside of the show.”

In an episode where “tail” puns—“Our tale is almost done”—served as a staple diversionary device, a little bit of inter-group tension might have served to liven things up a bit. But Martinez may soon have other opportunities to duke it out on the small screen.

Martinez has been contacted by “Beauty and the Geek,” a WB reality series in which “nerdy” guys are paired up with beautiful women. A self-proclaimed lover of the spotlight, Martinez says he is excited at the prospect of appearing on television again—in whatever form.

“The funny thing is if I got on that show it would shake things up a bit because, yes, I am a geek in the truest sense of the word, but I have a little bit of style,” says a smiling Martinez, who was wearing a dark suit and metallic tie during his interview with The Crimson.

A dating reality show could pick up on the potential for dramatic sexual tension that “Chasing Nature” only alludes to in extended shots of real-life arachnid mating.


At Harvard, Martinez wears many hats—a Quincy House residential tutor, a mathematics instructor at the extension school, a DJ at local clubs, and a student pursuing his own research on complex topics in mathematical physics. Martinez has discovered an infinite class of transcendental numbers, co-discovered the largest base 7 prime in the world (which has 67,727 digits), synthesized a new liquid crystal, developed a globally bounded, nonlinear approximation/perturbation technique, and developed a graph theoretic understanding of the Somos-4 sequence. These cryptic achievements were listed in a brief biography of Martinez on the website for a summer science program called NKS Summer School.

In spite of these whiz kid accomplishments, Martinez says that reversing the stereotype of a scientist as a one-dimensional “machine” with no social skills or cultural interests is a life-long concern of his.

“When I was about 12 or 11 years old, I took the ACTs and I went to this program for gifted and talented students for the course of four years, and there you would find the stereotypical scientists—kids that would develop their own languages, their own hieroglyphs,” Martinez says. “These are the kinds of kids who would get picked on and become high-profile.”

Marco Altamirano, a friend since elementary school, says that “boyish confidence” is a trait that carries Martinez through much of his work, and that has kept him miles away from the science nerd stereotype.

“He’s always ready to present himself,” Altamirano says.

Speaking to his ability to entertain, Martinez was the only Harvard student chosen from the many who auditioned for “Chasing Nature.” He speaks of future TV appearances with visible excitement, citing an interview with “Good Morning New England” on the day his show airs. But he says his new status as reality TV star hasn’t changed the way he’s been treated around campus.

“I’ve gotten a lot of attention lately, but I don’t think it’s special treatment,” Martinez says.

—Staff writer Liz C. Goodwin can be reached at