Faculty Spotlight: Juliet Spencer

Juliet Spencer’s research focuses on herpes viruses and the way they manipulate host immune responses. During our conversation, we discussed the support from her family, how she views herself as a mentor, and how she became interested in viruses and cells.

What started your interest in biology and biotechnology?

I always had a love for learning and fantastic teachers along the way. I was always very interested in DNA and molecular biology—that attracted me to Worcester Polytechnic Institute. They had an actual program dedicated to biotechnology, and it was a dream of mine to learn about biology and how to use it in a more applied way—learning not just for the sake of learning but also for the sake of doing something with that.

Did your family encourage your focus in biology? Were your parents scientists?

My mom was a clerk, and my dad ran a bar. They didn’t exactly know the scientist thing, but they knew I was very interested in science and encouraged me every way they knew how. I really appreciate that—it was something very vague and unknown to them and yet they gave me all the support. I hope that I can do for my son, to be very open and supportive of whatever he chooses even if I don’t understand what it is.

How did your mentors shape you and how does your experience come into your teaching or your lab when you are mentoring students?

I’ve been fortunate to always have great women role models, and I think it is important for girls, as they’re coming into the field, to see what a female scientist looks like and what a female scientist does and to have someone to identify with.

I’m a firm believer in mentoring. I think mentoring isn’t just working with students and training them but opening doors career-wise or exposing them to ideas. I also encourage college students to be mentors to younger kids and show what it’s like to be a girl in college in the science field. A fourth grade class visited recently, and we do enrichment activities with middle school kids. When the women I’m mentoring are placed in the position of being a mentor, they take themselves more seriously and start to think of themselves as a scientist not just as a student. I really like the mentoring process moving forward and backwards.

Did anyone ever tell you, if you’re going to do all this work, why do research? Why not go to med school?

I probably told myself that (laughter). I definitely had a crisis while I was in grad school because I was using my research skills for things with only the potential to improve human health. I decided to become an EMT and rode around in the ambulance for about a week, which was enough to convince me that I made the right decision—it was research for me and not necessarily direct interaction with patients or being in the hospital. I explored that option, but I’m much better at the bench working with my cells and viruses.

After getting your PhD, you worked at a biotechnology company before going back to academia. Was there a specific experience that made you think I would rather be in academia?

Well the opposite actually. When I was in college, I identified with my academic advisor, who was a fantastic professor and mentor, and I thought, “This is the job that I want.” I always wanted an academic career, but I also realized that if my goal was really to use my research skills for improving human health, that’s a very applied thing. To learn more and to teach people how to do that, I should experience it myself, so the impetus for going into industry was to understand better how to translate basic science research into deliverables—products that actually help people. Now I’ve come full circle, and I’m doing research that I hope will be translatable into actual products and have a human health impact.

So how did you get interested specifically in viruses and cells? What focused your research in that direction?

For some people, Biology is a very visual science because it’s trees and animals, things that you can really see, and I became very interested in the parts that you can’t see. My interest in viruses is that there is this thing that you can’t see that can take over a cell and change its behavior—trying to understand how that happens and trying to visualize things that are at the limits of what we can visualize.

What are some ways that you try to convey your passion for what we can’t see to your students?

I ask them to draw pictures and describe things. Even though I’m a scientist—I will admit that I am probably the absolute worst artist in the world—to me everything is really visual. Even if it’s not a picture of the virus, it’s a picture of what do we think is happening—the virus is going into the cell, the cell explodes. There’s trying to visualize what’s going on and once we have a visual of what we think is going on, then drilling down and figuring out what could be causing it.

What projects are you currently working on?

We have a few different projects in the lab. The Avon Breast Cancer Study was a big one. For that one, we explored the possibility that a common virus, Human cytomegalovirus (CMV), may be useful as a biomarker or parts of the virus might be useful for indicating the onset of breast cancer.

Other projects have to do with the virus and the way it manipulates the host immune system. We examined different viral proteins and the way they affect immune cells, the way they affect signaling pathways in the body.

What is the role of your students in the lab? How do you lure them into research?

I’ve been really lucky. The research projects touch on topics that people can relate to—breast cancer, the immune system. I get a lot of interested students, and I try to ignite the student’s interest and keep them interested by reminding them to step back. I always tell them there’s two parts about doing science, and the easy part, even though it doesn’t seem easy when you’re learning it, is the sort of technical steps involved in the lab and the manipulations. Sometimes the harder part is understanding the big picture. Why are we sort of doing all these manipulations? What is our real purpose and goal?

I teach them to conduct experiments and be proficient in the lab and learn skills that will be useful if they go on to work in industry or go to graduate school, but I also try to keep them motivated and thinking about the big picture goals.

What do you see as your role as a researcher and a mentor and a teacher?

Cheerleader. I think of myself as a cheerleader in the sense that I try to be really supportive of my students. I convey to them that if things don’t work out the way we had hoped, they’re still learning. If things do work out, I am positive and encouraging—this is taking us one step forward on our journey of this greater goal—and I try to make them see where they fit into the big picture. Even if they have a tiny sliver of a project, it’s part of a greater plan in the lab for addressing this important question. With teaching, I remind students that this isn’t about memorizing for a test, it’s about learning skills and concepts that you can apply to solve real world problems.

What is the big picture that you have for your research with public health?

The area I’m most interested in right now is diagnostics—how can we detect disease earlier, what are the clues that there is an imbalance or process going on in the body. In this day and age of big data, how can we integrate all the information and have predictive value or early diagnostic values so that people have the best possible outcomes? Of course prevention is always a worthy goal, but being realistic, how can we bring that information to people earlier?

Why did you decided to come to USF?

I went to a small school where I was really fortunate to have great mentorship and personal interactions with the faculty and that made such a big impression on me, especially since I didn’t come from a family of professionals or scientists. When I came to interview at USF, I felt that this is the same type of environment—people here really care about students, and they’re dedicated to developing those relationships with the students and seeing them growing and succeed. That fits perfectly with my personal goals and mission in life.

Do you take some of those ideas from your own undergraduate experience and apply them now that you’re a professor?

Absolutely! That’s something I think back on—what were the things I really enjoyed about my undergraduate experience and try to give those opportunities to my students such as doing independent projects. I tell the students that we’re going to spend half the semester learning basic microbiology and microscope skills, and then the second half they are going to come up with a problem that they want to investigate and use these skills independently. I’m blown away by the awesome projects that they think about that would never cross my mind, so it’s really fun to nurture that and encourage them to think outside the box and think big.