Nickcoles Martinez is an educator, producer, podcaster, and activist, with over a decade of experience working at the intersections of museum education, youth, and workforce development, mentoring, and science. His passion is to engage and support BIPOC students to pursue interests and careers in science and develop strategies for the promotion of diversity, equity, and inclusion in traditionally non-inclusive spaces.
He began his museum career as an undergraduate intern at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in the Museum Education and Employment Program, designing and leading tours of museum halls for visiting school and camp groups. After graduation, he returned to AMNH as an internship supervisor, helping to support the new cohort of college interns, and was later hired to teach genetics, human evolution, and neuroscience in the Hall of Human Origins Teaching Lab, first as a Lab Facilitator and then in a full-time role as the Coordinator of the Lab.
Martinez is currently the Assistant Director of Youth Initiatives and manages middle and high school programs, internship experiences, and alumni engagement. He also leads recruitment, community-building, and partnership efforts to increase diversity and promote equity and inclusivity across Youth Programs at the AMNH.
Photo by Matt Shanley
Where did you begin your museum career?
I applied for my first position at the American Museum of Natural History in 2009 for an internship in the Anthropology Collection. I was an anthropology major at SUNY Stony Brook and was thinking about what I wanted to do with this degree, especially after switching majors from pre-med. I ultimately didn’t get it. This internship was highly competitive because it was one of the few paid internships. I found another internship at AMNH called the Museum Education and Employment Program (MEEP). It’s an internship program specifically designed for college students where you learn about being facilitators and gain tour guiding experience including how to create your own unique tour. It was my first experience working at a museum. I led anthropology focused tours in the Hall of Human Origins and Hall of Primates.
Can you tell us about your journey from an intern at AMNH to the Assistant Director of Youth Initiatives?
My internship at AMNH was during the summer of 2010 between my junior and senior year of college. After I graduated, I knew that the museum liked to bring back former interns to be supervisors and help guide the next group of interns. I applied for that position and began working at AMNH again the summer after I graduated. The position ended in August but I realized that this was what I wanted to do career-wise. I continued to volunteer at AMNH in the Hall of Human Origins and in the Human Evolution Teaching Lab on weekends. I worked with some of the scientists who were also the facilitators, leading discussions with visitors that would come into the lab to learn about human evolution. At the same time, I started working at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, specifically with their high school internship program. I worked with a small group of students that were doing educational projects at the museum for a few months before I was hired at AMNH as a facilitator who would lead the discussions with visitors on the weekends, and come into the teaching lab. Eventually, I was hired to be the lab coordinator.
My museum journey was as an intern, volunteer, part-time employee, and then full-time employee. My goal was always to find a full-time position at AMNH. It was different from the sort of science research that I originally saw myself doing, but I realized that I enjoyed working with people and engaging them in conversations and helping them understand large science concepts. It was a cool experience and it was what led me down this path to continue to work in education in this capacity.
What other experiences in your career journey have you found most helpful in your role now?
I joined the Citywide Council on High Schools (CCHS) which is a group of volunteer parents that advocate on behalf of all public NYC high school students. CCHS serves as an advisory board providing input to the Chancellor and commentary to the Panel on Educational Policy regarding the needs of public school students. The main interest and goal is to improve the educational system in NYC. I was appointed by the public advocate’s office and I joined while I was doing my Masters at Baruch College. I was part of CCHS for almost two years.
At this point, I started to shift my thinking about what my career was going to look like, what I wanted to focus on, and I was learning how to manage organizations, institutions, and projects on a large scale. My masters degree is in nonprofit management. I wanted to understand what these larger organizations needed. What were the policies that I needed to understand to advance my career and take more of a leadership role. By joining CCHS, I got an inside look into how passionate parents are about education for their young people, because I’m not a parent. I got to understand how challenging and bureaucratic systems can be, how they’re designed, and what changes need to be made in order to have a real impact on the educational system in NYC.
What are some of the things that motivate you in your current role?
I think one of my main motivations is to help support young people who are like me. I didn’t grow up visiting museums that often. I was interested in science, but museums weren’t on my radar. I would go to the botanical gardens or the zoo occasionally but I don’t remember visiting a museum like AMNH in elementary, middle school, or even high school. Having representation in spaces like AMNH is really important to me. I want to develop the partnerships and relationships that get young people of color into spaces like this and to design experiences that will be really relevant and resonate with them. Experiences that validate both their cultural identity and their scientific and natural interests.
What are other goals at AMNH for you and for your team?
A lot of it is about rebuilding from the pandemic because there were a lot of staff and programmatic changes. We’re finding how to build things in new ways that connect with young people, bring in their natural passion for advocacy, and their desire for action. One of my goals is to design these new experiences that are focused on policy and equity issues and to make sure that every experience that we design touches on the interplay of science, society, and culture.. We’re not just talking about the science for science's sake, yes bats and understanding skeletal morphology is great, but how does that matter and why does that matter to someone’s everyday life and their lived experiences? We want to make sure those connections are clear for young people.
Rebuilding community has also been tough for a lot of our young people because virtual learning has been tough. Re-building and re-establishing that community from before the pandemic is important. It’s hard because you can’t go back to what you were doing in the pre-pandemic world. We’re making sure that we give space to educators as we navigate back to in-person learning. We’re being flexible and more empathetic in our work. There is much more cultural competence in the way we engage with young people. We didn’t have that focus at the intersection of science and society before, but young people are really engaged around issues of social justice and equity and issues of inequality. We want to make sure that we are tapping into those things whenever we design a curriculum. We’re thinking about whether we can include young people’s voices and how we can build that space for us to test out ideas before we’re implementing them in the classroom and get feedback from young people along the way. It’s an opportunity to be better and to be more intersectional.
Would your 18 year old self imagine that you would be where you are today?
No, I wouldn’t have imagined it mainly because I was so introverted. I didn’t imagine myself giving tours in a museum or engaging with people in conversation. When I was younger I really kept to myself. I read books, played chess and video games, and would be in my own little bubble. I thought that I was going to be a pathologist because that was something that was interesting to me. Once I got to college I started to become more interested in why people do what they do and understanding behavior. That was the anthropology connection that allowed me to understand behavior while also allowing me to go into a hard science where I got to think about evolution, anatomy, and skeletal morphology. It was the perfect mesh of all of the things I was interested in. Then finding an opportunity to push myself out of my introverted nature when I had to do tours and work on the floor of a museum was life changing. It put me down a completely different path. It pushed me out of my comfort zone.
Can you tell us about where you grew up? What was it like growing up there? Where did you go to school?
I’m from New YorK City. I grew up in BedSty in Brooklyn in the 1990s and it was a completely different place than it is right now. It was a largely impoverished neighborhood and I grew up in public housing. I grew up with a single mom but I had my grandmother and my aunt. I was raised by three really important and influential women in my life. That sort of guided the way I saw the world. We didn’t have a lot but they always made sure that I had the stuff that I needed.
In middle school I started playing chess, which was important for my development. Later I went to Brooklyn Tech, which is a specialized high school.
I was always curious and motivated. I always had a desire to learn more. Whenever anyone told me anything, I questioned it because I wanted to understand why. I continued that curiosity today in my work. How do we take all of those “why questions” and make them visible for young people?
What was the first museum experience that you can remember?
I remember coming to AMNH when I was 19. My girlfriend’s brother was in a program that would give him vouchers to visit museums that you could give to family members. We went on a date to AMNH. We went to a lot of museums during this time period and it got me used to going to museums like The Met or the Guggenheim or the Whitney and others that I didn’t remember going to as a kid.
Can you describe a favorite day on the job?
One of my favorite days is when we host our alumni parties. It’s an opportunity for alumni to come back to the museum to reconnect and re-engage with each other. The last one was in the Hall of Ocean Life with about 300 alumni. It’s great to see other alumni because I am an alum but also because helping to design the event and creating the experience. These moments are special.
We’ve also had team game night where we had a lot of young people come and play video games in the Hall of the Universe. Also our Teen SciFi Cafe which are interactive science discussions where students can meet researchers and scientists to learn about different career paths and all the different ways to become involved with science.
Do you have any key mentors or someone who has deeply influenced you? Has there been any advice that they’ve given you that you’ve held onto?
At the beginning of my museum career it was one of my supervisor Samara Rubenstein. She was one of my first supervisors who guided me and helped me understand how to work in an institution like AMNH because I was fresh out of undergrad and I didn’t know what to do every day.
Another mentor is Preeti Gupta, Senior Director of Children and Youth Programs at AMNH. She’s had a similar background to me working as a young person at a museum and then moved her way up. I look to her for guidance. One thing she told me early on was not to be a martyr. She said that because I was only someone who took on extra work and tried to do everything myself and that it’s helpful because you burn out. Not being a martyr is something that I try to remember even though it’s hard for me because I’ve always been a person who tried to do everything. It’s important for me to understand that there are times where I need to collaborate or let a project go and let someone else take over. I can’t do everything and I have to be willing to relinquish some of that control.