From “blue collar scientist” to pandemic PI: Getting to Know Dr. Spencer Freeman

written by Raphaella So

header image courtesy Spencer Freeman

Dr. Spencer Freeman joined the Biochemistry faculty in 2020. His lab studies two aspects of immune surveillance: resolution of ingested fluids in macrophages, and inhibitory signals suppressing phagocytosis. Born and raised in Toronto, Spencer first began his research career in high school where he participated in a lab mentorship program at the University of Toronto. He then attended the University of British Columbia and completed his PhD under the supervision of Michael Gold. Spencer did his postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Toronto with Sergio Grinstein, and proceeded to become a faculty member here. Read on to learn about his challenges of starting a lab during COVID and his advice for young scientists.

Starting a lab during COVID-19

What led you to pursue a career in science?

S.F: I was interested in lots of different things in high school. I had no idea what I was going to do, so the lab mentorship program helped a lot. It was weird because I was doing formal bench science before I even knew what I was doing. You’re making up a buffer and you don’t really know what pH is, but you know how to measure pH. You sort of learn the “blue collar” science in a way.

How does it feel to be settled back home in Toronto?

S.F: I don’t have that feeling of being “settled.” It’s not like I’m looking for other jobs or thinking I will move at any given time. I just don’t take it for granted. That’s what’s different when you’re at a research institute compared to [having] a tenure track position [Author’s note: SickKids faculty positions are not tenure track]. I’m not on my way to tenure. But I feel very lucky to have gotten a job in Toronto, and especially to have gotten the job when I did. There’s the pandemic, and now we’re all wrestling with the economic impact and the impact of mobility. I’m in the same city as where I did my postdoc – and I struggled to make that decision to stay – but I look back at it now and think, “thank God,” because starting a new lab in the middle of COVID is difficult.

You’re hiring new people, you’re trying to train people from a distance… You’re trying to make sure your lab is stocked. You’re trying to learn how to acquire equipment and supplies. This stuff is always difficult. It’s more difficult to get new items or to try them out. It’s really fortunate, in my case, that I have some equipment that’s already set up that I already know how to use. It’s really fortunate that I have colleagues that I already knew, so I don’t feel adrift. The emotional support and the sense of community is probably as important as the infrastructure when you’re setting up your lab.

How have you been meeting new colleagues and setting up new collaborations during the pandemic?

S.F: First and foremost, before even answering that part, the most important thing for me over the last year has been to make sure the people in my lab are doing okay. That has meant maintaining a lot of virtual contact and trying to keep a schedule. Having a schedule set up before the pandemic really helped – no matter what, I’m going to see you at least one hour a week. Even if we’re just sitting there staring at each other, you’re going to see me. I’m not here to just talk about your results. I want to talk about literature, about anything – whatever you want to talk about it. If that’s a therapy session, then good.

I haven’t been so formal about my collaborations. I’m not trying to find someone to work with to get this done. I think [for] the collaborations that work, you really just like the person, you like working with that person, and you like that person’s perspective as being different from your own. My best collaborations have been [the] more organic ones.

I think what happened when the pandemic first started is, for the first time in my life, all of a sudden, everyone’s talking about nucleic acids and viruses and infectious disease. That’s a unique experience for scientists that, beforehand, were trying to convince our neighbors and our parents that what we’re doing is really important. For me, I had worked on fusion pathways of enveloped viruses. It wasn’t my focus, but it’s in the news and I am a scientist excitable by that science. So I wrote something that wound up in Cell about enveloped virus fusion with a bunch of virologists (even though I am not one). Because I got excited and I had time on my hands. I guess that was new collaborations.

Some final words about the pandemic …

In a way we’ve learned a lot of new stuff. I didn’t know what Zoom was before COVID, but we’ve learned how to interact and to be comfortable having conversations on Zoom. We’re taking advantage of existing technology and exercising new parts of the mind. I think it will have been a learning experience, but I don’t want to minimize the impact in terms of mental health and the virus itself. I know it’s been difficult for a lot of people, especially for young people and people in transitions in their life. Some of the stress that has happened has been this chronic, low-grade stress. You don’t even realize the impact of that until you vacation on a beach somewhere and have a good long cry.

Life beyond the lab bench

Three major components of your selfcare routine?

S.F: Oh my gosh, selfcare. This is my own mantra, this isn’t advice. Well, I drink lots of water. I… Uh… Moisturizer is a big thing. Is this a “how to look like me?” This is my Rob Lowe advice… moisturizer for sure. With hyaluronan in it. That’s a big thing. Hyaluronic acid for people that are into that.

And to not shampoo too often. I shampoo my hair maybe once a week. There is something like natural beauty. Like Ivory soap. I don’t do anything very spectacular at all. I don’t apply anything aside from moisturizer, the only soap I have is Ivory, I wash my hair once a week with shampoo.

That’s a very interesting answer. I was not expecting this.

S.F: What would people say to that?

Yoga… meditation… that sort of thing.

S.F: (Firmly) No.

Favorite food?

S.F: I won’t tell you what I normally eat because that’s boring, and I’m just going to appear boring. My actual favorite food… I like Greek food a lot. Mediterranean food. There’s nothing like a Greek salad. Jimmy the Greek (laughs).

Mediterranean diet. Gonna sound really healthy. As opposed to, what should I say? A burger from… I don’t know, Five Guys. It’s one or the other.

Ask Spencer: Advice for young scientists

How did your previous supervisors prepare you for your current role as a PI?

S.F: I think the important lessons to learn, that you won’t necessarily get from all mentors in the business, are how to manage people, how to write grants, and how to manage money.

How to manage people. You can learn that by example. It’s not just about having the right projects, the right questions, or being the brightest scientist, but it’s connecting the right science and projects with the right people and making sure that they’re as passionate about the work as you are. Part of that is just finding people that intrinsically have that passion for the topic, and it’s also trying to build that fire within the student or postdoc as well. I’ve learned from Sergio to try to build fires within people. Part of that is routine mentorship and meetings. I meet with my trainees at least every week, and my door is always open.

Grant writing. That’s a different skill from even writing papers. You can appreciate your own science and see its significance, but now you need to convince a general audience of the impact of that, and that you have a handle on it. Grant writing is something you’d really like to learn at the postdoc stage. Sergio does walk you through the process of writing a grant. He does that also for reviewing papers, that sort of stuff. I think that getting a window into the process is really important. Even if you have a supervisor that isn’t doing that, just ask them for it and they probably will teach you.

Managing money. Often you’ll do your postdoc in a big lab, and you’ll try to go for the biggest person in your field, and part of that means you have access to the fanciest toys, the best machines, all the kits you can get your hands on… That’s all good but you need to adjust big time when you’re starting a lab yourself. If all along, you’re at least aware when you buy a kit that you can also make the same thing for cheaper, then that’s good. I think that the most important part of your budget is recruiting really good people. You will never regret spending money on stipends and salaries. But you have to figure out how you’re going to recruit people you’ll work well with, how you’re going to assemble your team, and how to interview. You can begin to assemble that advice even as a grad student by drawing from all the examples that you can. The way to do that is to ask as many questions as you can and try to get a window into the day-to-day operations.

Do you have any lab hacks to share with trainees?

S.F: Get to know your [experimental] system really well so that you know when something’s different. So you can readily see [it] when you have a phenotype. The general advice is to get to know your baseline. Get to know your steady state. Get to know your cells, your organelle, whatever. Once you do that, and only when you do that, you can start to do different conditions and permutations. That, in the long run, will save you a lot of time and money.

Final parting thought: Just looking back at your own career journey, what advice would you give to grad students?

S.F: There are more PhDs given out today than there were yesterday. The positions available don’t necessarily increase in the same scale. In that atmosphere, it is more important than ever for students to check in with themselves and ask themselves why they’re doing it. You’ll be tested so much in your journey that in those moments, you need to believe in what you’re doing.

There is this advice that I was given by one of my former supervisors Mike Gold at UBC. He would say, “There’s always that extra lane on a gel. That extra cover slip. That extra well. Make sure you’re doing a few experiments for yourself.” Obviously you have to do the experiments that your supervisor is asking you to do and that contribute to your thesis, but there’s always that extra well. So try stuff out. You have to have that curiosity and maintain that curiosity. In the long run, you have to be genuinely interested in something that’s different than what your supervisor is interested in.

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