Dr. Sade Spencer Strives to Develop New Therapies to Combat Drug Addiction

There are rare opportunities for young researchers to make a big impact early in their careers. Sade Spencer, PhD, found one at the University of Minnesota Medical School and moved north to contribute to its transformative research in drug addiction.

Spencer, an assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacology, was drawn to Minnesota for the chance to join the University’s Medical Discovery Team on Addiction. A multi-departmental and cross-disciplinary effort, the team focuses on studying treatment and drug addiction. Together, they strive to deploy basic science research to develop novel therapeutic approaches for treating substance abuse.

A neuroscientist, Spencer was attracted by “the idea of being part of something and really building something bigger than myself,” she says. “As a young investigator, it’s rare that you get the opportunity to have this much impact on how your group or department is formed. So, that was something really special that was offered here.”

Real-world Research

Spencer wants her research to lead to better treatments or cures for drug addiction. In addition, she aims to learn more about addiction as a brain disease and destigmatize the condition, “treating people suffering from that disease as people,” she adds.

Currently, the Spencer Lab studies self-administration of drugs, abuse of cocaine and cannabinoids and the development of drug addiction, specifically what makes people vulnerable to it. Spencer is also interested in probing relapses and identifying treatments that use pharmacology or neuromodulation.

Spencer enjoys her work because it offers a wealth of creativity and problem-solving. “There is an art in science,” she says. “The reason I became a scientist is to help people, and I want to do something that hopefully changes the world in some way.”

Originally from Texas, Spencer earned her doctorate at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Medical University of South Carolina. There, she developed animal models to study changes to the brain and behavior across varying stages of addiction and relapse.

Getting Involved Early and Often

Since joining the University of Minnesota faculty in 2018, Spencer has been struck by the U of M’s abundant expertise in diverse fields. And people don’t keep it to themselves. “It really, truly is a place where they foster and encourage collaboration across the community,” she adds.

Spencer is also involved with the Medical School’s Center for Women in Medicine and Science and serves on its recruitment and retention subcommittee. Her research talents apply here as well; she aims to understand what issues prompt female faculty to leave the University, from pay equality to tenure.

“We’re gathering data and seeing what can be done to fix it,” Spencer says. “It’s important because in spite of all of the gains we have made in the past decade, there is still a lack of women in leadership positions in science. We are striving to understand that gap. … Then we can get an understanding of how we can keep women here.”

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