“When I was in Grad School…” with Debbie Spector

SpectorBy Kanaga Arul Nambi Rajan

Within minutes of my arrival, Debbie eagerly dived into her story. “It will explain why some of the things in graduate school went the way they did. So, I met my current husband when we were 12 years old and we started dating when we were 15…”

This is how my interview with Dr. Deborah (Debbie) Spector (aka the BMS chair aka the reason most of us BMS students are IN the program) started off her interview. Literally. As she describes, her graduate school and scientific journey was not only shaped by science but by family and, as she mentions many times, a lot of luck.

From a Small All-Girls College to MIT:

Debbie Spector was born the daughter of a chemical engineer (father) and a nurse (mother). She conducted her first science experiments on a toy microscope she received on her 8th birthday. Then, in 5th grade, her elementary school teacher really sparked her deep passion for science. This enthusiasm led her to participate in an intensive high school research program when she was in 11th grade. From a young age, there was never another field for Debbie outside of science. Which, of course, is why she studied biology in college.

Debbie attended Smith College, a small all-girls college in northwestern Massachusetts. Her parents wanted her to attend a school that was both an all girls school and that was far away from her then-boyfriend. However, they maintained their relationship and upon graduation, she and her childhood sweetheart married at 22 years old. Then their goal was to find a city that would allow him to pursue medicine and her, research. This led the young couple to Boston. Her husband enrolled at Tufts medical school while she started her PhD at MIT with a NSF fellowship in hand.

Debbie spent the next four years working under the guidance of soon-to-be Nobel Laureate, David Baltimore. Initially, David’s lab was small (seven or eight people) and as Debbie explained, she thankfully avoided the initial ‘sink or swim’ situation of a huge lab but had the advantage of working with terrific colleagues and growing with the lab. These impressive colleagues included postdocs Inder Verma, Robert Weinberg, Hung Fan and Nancy Hopkins and lab neighbors such as Rick Firtel and Phil Sharp.

Debbie was David’s fifth graduate student, and upon arrival, was paired with a postdoc. Debbie explained, “David was not a hands-on PI. He was [more of a] ‘come and talk to me about it when you have your final data and, you know, when it is almost ready for publication and we’ll talk about it’.  [However] He was always open for if you were ever having serious problems or trying to figure it out. And of course, a half hour with him would be like talking a week with somebody else. He was so smart. He is really just so bright.”

With her husband in medical school, Debbie knew she had only four years to finish her PhD before he would be matched for his residency and they would have to move. Debbie therefore fast-tracked her PhD. She completed many of her graduate course electives during undergrad, so she started graduate school, in many ways, with the second year students. But, as most graduate students know, the real challenge in grad school is making progress on your thesis project. After the failure of her initial project, Debbie’s thesis focused on the discovery of the polyA tail on poliovirus and identifying its function for setting up the initial infection for replication. But how did she manage to finish her project in four years? She worked hard. ALL THE TIME. Since her husband was in medical school, she said it actually worked well for them. They had a routine. They would make sure to always meet for dinner. Then she would return to lab while he went back to the library to study. By her third year, Debbie made great progress in her project and even published a few papers.

“I Always Knew I could do the Balance”:

In her second year, Debbie met Mike Bishop (another future Nobel Laureate) at a Gordon Conference. She decided then, early in graduate career, that she would go to UCSF and do her postdoctoral fellowship in Mike’s lab. In attempt to ensure his own spot at UCSF, her husband began networking at UCSF through his internships. Debbie would travel with him part of the time, working on papers while away from lab. By their fourth year, her husband matched with UCSF for his residency and Debbie was ready to start the next stage of her career in the Bishop lab. She also lined up several postdoctoral fellowships, of which she chose the Helen Hay Whitney fellowship. What her future lab did not expect was Debbie to be pregnant with her son, her first child.

“So I arrived at UCSF in June and now was pregnant. Which Mike Bishop and Harold [Varmus] did not necessarily count on!” laughed Debbie, “So I said ‘Look. You will see. I will be working full time. I’m very organized. I will be here night and day before the baby is born and it will not stop me afterwards.”

And as we know, she was right! It was during this postdoc that she worked on the src oncogene.

From the start, Debbie and her husband were a unit and family was always a priority. She knew family would be a part of her life. “I want to say that I always knew I could do the balance of it and never doubted that I would not be able to have a family and a career. That was something I was very confident that I was going to be able to do and I was always extremely organized so I came in [to lab and], got done when I needed to…”

She maintained this outlook throughout her postdoc and once she joined UCSD faculty. Right before she received tenure, she was pregnant with her second child and her third was born before she made full professor. Unfortunately, there was no maternity leave for faculty.  So within days of her daughter’s birth, she was back in lab with her daughter in tow. For her third child, she gave birth on a Friday and was back in lab by Monday! Why the rush?

Debbie laughs, “My very first graduate student was getting her PhD and we had scheduled her thesis defense so it was going to be 2 weeks after my due date. Of course this last child didn’t know what the schedule was and at that time, they were letting the baby stay in much longer and it finally got to the Thursday before the Monday. And I said you have to induce me. I have to be there at her thesis defense! So they induced me that Friday!”

PIs are Just Like Us. It was not Always Easy:

Clearly, Debbie always had a passion for science and research. Though she had a successful PhD, it was my no means without its share of struggles. “I think the toughest challenge that I faced was really believing enough that I was competent,” Debbie reminisced.

“You know, I was really in this group of super, super scientist legends and I really felt ‘My gosh, I’m really at the bottom of this group’. So that was really hard for me. That was some of the hardest things for me to go through is the self doubt and wondering [will] I really ever really be at that level.”

Despite her zeal for research, she confessed, “But you know, to be fair, there were times when I was a graduate student when I didn’t know why I was doing what I was doing. There were defined periods during my graduate career where I seriously questioned whether this was the right path for me. I think the worst came in my second year where I just [asked] ‘Is this really what I want to do? Is this going to be of value, you know? Am I going to be able to contribute in the future? And my husband was doing medical school so that was always something I looked at. Should I go to medical school instead?”

She emphasized, “I always try to tell graduate students that when you have these doubts, it is perfectly normal. It really is. You know, if you DIDN’T have some doubts about what you are doing, I’d be worried. I really would.”

Focusing on the Next Generation:

Now a Distinguished Professor at UCSD and Skaggs School of Pharmacy and current chair of the Biomedical Sciences graduate program, Debbie views her role in shaping the new generation of scientists as her scientific contribution that will be remembered. “I really feel my role is to train the next generation of scientists. I feel, no matter how famous you are, no matter what prizes you’ve won, people are going to forget about your work in 10 years. They are going to be onto the next,” she asserted.

“There are very few things that you will remember 10 years from now about particular research that was done. But the people you train. They are going to go on.”

“I really do feel it is the most important contribution you can make is to train the next generation. It’s not about, it really is not about you. I think a PI needs to know that. That training them and not just using them as a pair of hands to get the next grant [is important]. You [the PI] are there to get it so they can go on and to continue the cycle.”

Debbie also has a few pieces of advice to impart on current graduate students and budding scientists. For starters (though this might be hard for us graduate students to practice) she advises to stop worrying about when experiments fail. She assures us that it is not due to incompetence. The best way to overcome it is to take it as a learning experience from which to improve. Secondly, and most importantly, she advises we take care of our mental health during graduate school.

Clearly concerned, Debbie shared, “There is one other thing that I feel is really important and I’ve appreciated it much more because of the roles I’ve played for the medical students in counseling parts as well as graduate students. The mental health is really critical and I think that it is very, very important for you, as a person, to monitor your mental health and your colleagues because that I think is the most debilitating thing that can happen that really can destroy a person and their ability to go on. So important advice is do what you need to maintain your own mental health. Whatever you can do. And if you have colleagues where you can see they are going down a dark path, make sure you are guiding them to get help. When I was in graduate school, mental health and depression were still in the closet. Nobody would ever, ever admit they were feeling depressed at any time. You just didn’t.”

Comparing graduate school today to her time at MIT, Debbie observes that the graduate students are still incredibly bright, and if anything, are better and more prepared. A large part of that she attributes to the advancements in technology. However she notices that science culture has changed. Back then, everyone would come back to lab after dinner and work late into the night; that was part of their culture. She noticed that this has changed. The culture has shifted and, she asserts, this is not necessarily bad. For instance, Debbie sees the beginnings of reform for women in science, which she believes is a step in the right direction. Women are beginning to have more options, especially in terms of balancing science, careers and families. Debbie and her husband managed to pursue their careers side by side; even when it took them across the country, they worked together to value the other’s position. She is grateful that she was lucky enough to be able to successfully pursue her scientific and familial goals. However, she appreciates how difficult it is now for two partners to find positions together. And though she thinks science can do more for women in science, the changes in science culture are going in a promising direction.

Now, Debbie is dedicating more time to communicate science to younger generations of scientists in elementary school. This also includes a young budding scientist in her own family – her 7 year old grandson. “We isolate DNA from strawberries, we build things with the physics stuff. And fortunately, he is very into molecular biology,” she proudly explains. Though of course she realizes the limits with young scientists. She laughs, “I look at what is going to work. Anything that has a 15 minute waiting period during the experiment is not going to work with a 7 year old.”

Of course, it is clear Debbie was meant to be a scientist. She cannot even easily fathom having a career outside of science and medicine. “Oh! If I wasn’t in the sciences! I..I’ve never thought about it! And probably because I have no musical talent whatsoever. As an athlete, I’m much better as a spectator, you know. So I don’t have very many skills or aptitude for things…” Then after a moment, Debbie reconsidered, “Actually today, if I were not [in science], I’d probably want to look at starting my own business. But I would have never thought of that when I was younger. But today you can do it.”

Despite all of her tremendous scientific accomplishments, Debbie sees her family and children as her proudest accomplishments.

She beams, “It [my proudest accomplishment] was my children. You know, it doesn’t sound, like ‘gee you discovered the src oncogene blah blah blah…’ but I really have to say that has to be the accomplishment. And quite honestly, that doesn’t stop when they become adults. Your training of them.”

Now, with all of her many hats, Debbie must find some way to relax right? Well, her and her husband enjoy traveling. Other than added on vacations to conference travels, in the recent years, they began taking short breaks from science by travelling through New Zealand, Machu Picchu and the Galapagos (a trip she recommends we all add to our bucket list).

Her next big adventure? A river cruise through Portugal in the upcoming months. We wish her safe journey and look forward to hearing all about her travels!