Alumni Making a Difference

From Grand Prairie to the Great North

Sade Spencer, Ph.D., on the responsibility she feels to ‘help train the next generation’ of scientists

Life and science are one and the same for Sade Spencer, Ph.D. Growing up in Grand Prairie, Texas, she dreamed of becoming a doctor. When she recalls her days as a biology student at the University of Alabama, she has to clarify it was the football school, not the science one.

But it was while working in the lab of Associate Professor Nancy Monson, Ph.D., at UT Southwestern Medical Center where her dreams and career came together.

Dr. Sade Spencer
Sade Spencer, Ph.D. Provided by University of Minnesota

“I really got a sense of what it would be like to be a scientist in a really good lab,” said Dr. Spencer, now an Assistant Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Minnesota.

After graduating from UT Southwestern in 2012 with a doctorate in neuroscience, she completed postdoctoral work at The Medical University of South Carolina. Recruited by the University of Minnesota to join its Medical Discovery Team on Addiction, in the intervening years she has taught graduate courses in pharmacology and built her own research team.

“When I run my lab, I’m trying to emulate for my students the positive environment I felt at UT Southwestern,” she said. “I always had the feeling that my professors had a personal investment in my success.”

Driven by the experiences of family members and friends struggling with anxiety, depression, and substance abuse, she looked back on her mentors at UT Southwestern and shared why she tries to be a role model for future scientists.

What motivated you to pursue a career in neuroscience?

Like many people in the biomedical research field, I am idealistic and have always wanted to have a connection to the problem I am working on. I came to research with the desire to have a positive impact. I hope our research will help inform the improvement of therapy for the millions of individuals living with substance use disorders. This research area is also close to my heart because I have first-hand experience of the toll that addictions can have on individuals and families.

Why is neuroscience important to a patient’s overall care?

Although my lab uses preclinical models to study substance use disorders, we believe that our research has the potential to contribute to the development of novel treatments for addiction. The recent rise in drug overdose death rates in the U.S. highlights the continued importance of this work.

“When I run my lab, I’m trying to emulate for my students the positive environment I felt at UT Southwestern."

What is your proudest accomplishment?

My independent career is still relatively young as I am only four years out of my postdoctoral training. The recent accomplishment that I am most proud of is the development of my first graduate course at the University of Minnesota. The class is called “The Ethical Scientist,” and it provides our pharmacology graduate students with an opportunity to delve into both long-standing and emerging ethical dilemmas and policy issues related to biomedical research.

Who at UT Southwestern had the greatest influence on you?

Many individuals played a pivotal role in my training. Dr. Nancy Street is at the top of that list, because I suspect she was influential in my admission to UT Southwestern. I credit Dr. Nancy Monson, my mentor for my first graduate school rotation, with teaching me the fundamentals. Dr. Colleen McClung – my dissertation advisor – and Dr. Shibani Mukherjee, both fostered my maturation into an independent researcher.

What is most important in your career?

Mentoring is probably the most important thing. I continue to have many significant mentors who have contributed to my success. I feel a responsibility to pay it forward and help train the next generation, especially in my role as a Black woman in science.