Published: Sept. 13, 2016

Chalk up two more prestigious awards in 2016 for CU Boulder Assistant Professor Sabrina Spencer, who continues on the fast track as a top-drawer, international biomedical researcher in the arena of cancer. Portrait of Sabrina Spencer.

Spencer, a faculty member in Chemistry and Biochemistry, was named a Beckman Young Investigator in July by the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation. The award that will provide $750,000 for her research over four years. The Beckman Young Investigator Program provides research support to promising young faculty members in the early stages of their careers in the chemical and life sciences. 

Spencer was one of just eight winners nationally of the 2016 Beckman Young Investigator Program. Researchers in Spencer’s lab, who include doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers, are untangling how complex signaling events that occur inside single cells ultimately control a cell’s fate.

Spencer’s team studies signaling responses to conditions like cell stress, cell growth factors and targeted cancer therapeutics. Cell signaling, she says, can lead to a number of ultimate cell fates, including proliferation, quiescence (a temporary dormant period), differentiation and cell death. As part of the effort, the team uses genetically encoded fluorescent sensors to track specific cell signals and cell fates using time-lapse microscopy and computational cell tracking.

“Our long-term goal is to understand the normal function of signaling pathways, to understand how these signals go awry in cancer, and eventually to alter the fate of individual cells,” says Spencer. “In the long run we hope to apply these methods to pinpoint rogue signals that allow cancer cells to escape the action of therapeutic drugs.”

In June, Spencer was one of 10 Colorado scholars to be named a 2016 Boettcher Investigator as part of the Webb-Waring Biomedical Research Awards. The awards provide $235,000 for each Boettcher Investigator for up to three years of research.

In April, Spencer was named a 2016 Searle Scholar, which is given to only 15 scientists in the nation annually and carries an award of $300,000 over three years. Searle Scholars are selected for their highly inventive ideas and their potential to make significant contributions to the fields of chemistry and biology.

That same month she was one of 15 researchers named a Kimmel Scholar in a national competition. Funded by the Sidney Kimmel Foundation, the Kimmel Scholar program provides $200,000 in funding over two years to the brightest young cancer researchers at the outset of their careers.

Spencer said the awards provide both validation and encouragement for her sometimes unconventional approaches to tackling fundamental questions in cell proliferation and cancer drug resistance.

“Because these four foundations typically fund high risk/high reward ideas, I believe they push American scientists to be more innovative,” explains Spencer. “It is inspiring to be included in the groups of previous award winners, many of whom have gone on to have noteworthy careers in science and medicine.”