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Associate Professor of Physics Christine Nattrass knew something was wrong. Christal Martin, a student in her classical mechanics course at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, was getting 99s on her homework assignments and knew the material as well as anyone in the class, but she did poorly on exams.

“I couldn’t finish exams in the allotted time,” said Martin. “I’d grow anxious, and I would have panic attacks. Dr. Nattrass was persistent about me going to Disability Services. She said, ‘Clearly you have an issue, and you need to seek help.’ She said she would go with me if that was needed.” Martin did go, and her anxiety qualified her for testing accommodations.

“That made all the difference,” said Martin. “If it were not for Dr. Nattrass, I would never have done honors physics and math and I would not be going to grad school in physics in the fall. I will always be grateful to her.”

From Sevierville, Tennessee, Martin, 31, has taken a nontraditional route to the College of Arts and Sciences commencement ceremony on May 9, when she will receive her BS with honors in physics, honors in mathematics, and a minor in classical civilization. “I was taking Latin for my foreign language,” she said, “and I’ve always loved Greek history. It helped me break up the STEM courses.”

Early on, Martin struggled in English classes. “I was terrible on the writing,” she said, “but I was willing to ask for help. I went to office hours and the Judith Herbert Writing Center. In the end I had five English and writing-intensive classes and got As. Having the support from professors—that’s made all the difference.” In the fall, she will begin working toward her PhD in physics at UT.

Doing so well in class that no one sees a problem

Martin was raised by a young, single mother, and grew up under challenging socioeconomic circumstances. “We moved a lot and I went to 11 different schools,” said Martin, “but I did so well in class that nobody noticed that I wasn’t doing well in reading. I was in advanced math classes but lower-level reading and spelling classes. I was always afraid to have to read aloud.”

Martin’s mother is dyslexic. Although Martin herself has never been diagnosed with dyslexia, she suspects that she has always had some form of learning disability. “I loved to read,” she explained. “It just takes me a long time.”

Martin performed so well at Sevier County High School that she graduated at 17 and started at UT in 2007. “As a first-generation college student, you’re doing it by yourself,” she said. “In my mother’s whole family of 10 kids and 25 grandchildren, no one has ever graduated from college. I was quite a bit overwhelmed, and I had other hardships and issues. After one semester, it seemed better for me to withdraw.”

Martin worked as an AT&T sales consultant for five years. In 2010 she married Zack Martin, whom she had met in high school. “He’s six-foot-five and I’m four-ten,” said Martin. “We’re opposites in so many ways.”

After AT&T closed the store in Sevierville where Martin was working, she subbed for two years in Sevier County middle and high schools, assisting teachers by managing classes, tutoring, and introducing math and science lesson plans. She realized that to continue teaching she needed her degree. Encouraged by Zack, she reapplied to UT. “He’s been such a great support for me, for anything I wanted to do,” she said.

Life as a returning student

“After a nine-year break, I was scared,” she said. “I didn’t remember anything. I went to office hours and did everything I could to ask for help. It made me feel better that in classes you always find people who are older nontraditional students.”

On the STEM side, said Martin, “I enjoy particle physics a lot, and I’ve always loved applied math.” Once her anxiety issues were addressed, she joined the honors programs in both disciplines.

In the fall 2017, Professor Geoff Greene took his modern physics class on a tour of Oak Ridge National Laboratory. “When we walked into the Spallation Neutron Source building,” she said, “I had that feeling that I had found my calling. I was so excited to see it all in action.”

In a 2018 summer fellowship under Greene, Martin worked on the Nab (Neutron a and b) experiment, using a seven-meter-long superconducting magnet with a pair of special-purpose pixelated silicon detectors at both ends, “separating the elections and protons from decaying neutrons to study weak force,” she explained. Since 2019, she has researched quark-gluon plasma and relativistic heavy ion collisions under Nattrass.

In November, as Christal was beginning to develop her thesis under Assistant Professor of Biophysics Maxim Lavrentovich, she and Zack welcomed Korben, named after the Bruce Willis character in The Fifth Element. “It’s hard raising a newborn without childcare,” she said. Even so, she completed her thesis on how cells grow and spread within branched structures.

“I have gained so much coming back to UT,” said Martin. “My husband and I took a financial risk in me being a full-time student. The risk was worth it. In addition to an education, I have gained a supportive community that has helped me become confident in myself. I have established long-lasting friendships with my peers and faculty. UT made available the resources I needed to be successful. UT is family, and I look forward to continuing my journey into graduate school as a Volunteer!”

This spring, the university will award approximately 4,825 degrees—3,548 undergraduate degrees, 1,065 graduate degrees and certificates, 121 law degrees, and 91 veterinary medicine degrees. Additionally, 17 Air Force ROTC cadets will be commissioned along with 22 Army ROTC cadets. Five socially distanced commencement ceremonies will take place in Neyland Stadium. See the commencement website for details.


Brooks Clark (865-310-1277,