Alumni Stories: Matt Springer

Matt Springer
PhD 1992, Postdoctoral Fellow & Senior Scientist, until 2003
Biological Sciences, Cell Biology/Biochemistry, Molecular Pharmacology

Professor of Medicine
University of California, San Francisco

"I’m between the two worlds of science… I am a basic scientist doing clinically-relevant work."

Matthew Springer, PhD, is one of two non-clinical faculty members of UCSF’s Division of Cardiology. He leads a translational research team that studies cell and gene therapy approaches to treating cardiovascular disease, and the harmful cardiovascular effects of secondhand smoke from tobacco and marijuana.

 

Define Success: How do you define career & professional success?

I define career and professional success in both personal and public terms.

On the personal side, I'm passionate about my research. It is truly a major interest in my life, and I’m always thinking about it – even during evenings and weekends. Not because I have to, or because someone requires it, but rather because it’s something I want to do. Of course, there are aspects of academic research that can be stressful and frustrating – such as the almost constant hunt for the next grant, but to tell you the truth, the excitement about what we are doing makes up for it. At the same time, I have made it a point to maintain a healthy balance in life, as that is very important. For example, I play violin in the Peninsula Symphony (which actually brings me back to Stanford each fall for an annual concert with the Stanford Symphonic Chorus).

On the public side, I view success not as amassing awards or leadership positions, but as having a career that impacts – or will impact – the world around me.  I ask myself: Will my career enable me to leave the world better than I found it?  Will it enable me to be part of the solution? As Mahatma Gandhi is popularly quoted (but apparently did not actually say), “Will it enable me to be the change I envision in the world?”

 

Decision: How did you decide you wanted to go into this field?

I confess to having had a career crisis towards the end of graduate school at Stanford, in which I questioned if I was on right career path.  I had been studying developmental biology and gene regulation in the bread mold Neurospora in Charley Yanofsky’s lab, and then did a short, first postdoc in Jim Spudich’s lab studying development in slime molds. While these involved interesting questions to me academically, it was not clear to me how my specific research would have a direct, tangible benefit for people. I was learning that this aspect was increasingly important to me.

Consequently, I found myself at a crossroads, facing a proverbial dichotomy in science. There is the science for investigating how things work and why, as a way of understanding our world. Pure scientists asking questions are a necessary part of the scientific endeavor, and increasing our aggregated knowledge about the natural world is important. To a certain extent, basic scientists are satisfied when they know how something works – without needing to envision tangible benefits that may arise from their discoveries.

Then there is the science that has a more direct and visible link between the research and a benefit to public health or medicine. I wanted to know: how can I not only learn about the world, but also improve health? I was not satisfied with just the “how” and “why;” I needed to go beyond those questions and make discoveries that could directly influence public health decisions.

Subsequently, I decided to join Helen Blau’s Lab, as she was beginning a translational project in her historically basic science lab by entering the new field of gene therapy. My project there was to use myoblasts, the cells that develop into muscle cells, as therapeutic agents to deliver new genes to muscle that would have beneficial cardiovascular effects.

Despite having embarked on a translational research career, I still fondly remember my thesis research with Neurospora, and, still today, my office is decorated with my journal cover photos of fungus. They are very artistic.

 

Description: What are some of your day-to-day activities?

My research focuses on cardiovascular disease. I am exploring not only the underlying mechanisms involved in angiogenesis (the development of blood vessels), vascular function and myocardial infarction (the loss of living heart muscle due to a blockage) but also finding potential treatments for conditions that can lead to heart failure in humans. I’m researching the harmful cardiovascular effects of tobacco and marijuana smoke.

My lab’s website is: https://cardiolab.ucsf.edu

 

Research Accomplishment: Can you describe your research and one exciting aspect or accomplishment of which you are proud?

After many years of researching the effects of secondhand tobacco smoke on vascular function/reactivity in rats, my lab was able to successfully conduct similar studies into the effects of secondhand marijuana smoke. We discovered that low levels of this smoke are not as benign as is commonly assumed by the public, indicating that involuntary public exposure to marijuana smoke should be prevented.

We found that one minute of exposure to secondhand smoke from marijuana diminishes blood-vessel function in rats to the same extent as secondhand smoke from tobacco (an effect also observed in humans after tobacco smoke exposure) – although the effect was longer lasting. In other words, it’s the smoke from a burning plant that is toxic, not the type of plant being smoked. We reported our initial results in 2014 at a conference and then published the paper in 2016 in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

Although we don’t know the actual mechanism that makes this smoke detrimental, we can see its detrimental effects – such as the inability of a person’s arteries to function properly and the duration of effect. Repeated exposure could do long-term damage to blood vessels, potentially leading to chronic vascular dysfunction.

Why is this an issue? As the medicinal and recreational use of marijuana becomes more prevalent, people should be aware that the smoke (including secondhand smoke) is not necessarily harmless and likely has some of the same harmful effects as tobacco smoke.  Our results indicate that we should include marijuana in smoke-free policies.

Despite not being a policy expert by training, I suddenly found myself talking to media outlets such as CBS News (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/smoking-heart-health-pot-or-tobacco/); the research got some pretty extensive media coverage. Policy makers and public health agencies took notice. This was quite an experience for a lab rat!

 

Career Transition: How did you become a non-clinical faculty member within UCSF’s Division of Cardiology?

Originally, when I was hired into UCSF in 2003, it was as faculty on the level of the Cardiology Division in the Department of Medicine, and I was supposed to transition into a traditional university-level faculty position, which would involve evaluation and approval. However, I discovered that my research was too basic (that is, not patient-oriented) for those who would evaluate clinical researchers, and too clinically-applied for those who would evaluate basic researchers.

Essentially, I was between two worlds of science!

Fortunately, in 2006/7, the NIH launched a major initiative creating the national Centers for Translational Research, and UCSF was one of these centers. Suddenly, there was a definition for my type of science and a description of responsibilities for the kind of research I was doing. UCSF also opened a third track for the sort of evaluation that I needed to undergo, one focused on translational research, and I was successfully evaluated and approved for university-level appointment.

As a basic scientist in a clinical division; I have a foot in both worlds, and it is exciting to have this type of collaboration.

 

Advocacy: Why is advocacy work so important?

Advocacy is a scientist’s responsibility. We have to tell people what we have discovered – especially relating to health matters.  This has become especially important with regard to our marijuana results mentioned earlier, in which we have reported potentially harmful effects from secondhand marijuana smoke, which many people have assumed to be harmless.

Why? Because people mistake the absence of evidence of harm as evidence of absence ofharm. We have to bring the issue to the public’s consciousness so that it can impact public health decisions. It is not enough to publish our research in scientific journals because the general public will not necessarily see that work.

While I hesitate to make any grand claims, I feel that our work has indeed made a difference. We have started a dialogue. People are asking about this; they are thinking about it. Now, Google searches for “marijuana secondhand smoke” frequently return articles about governments or other organizations dealing with regulation of marijuana smoking, usually raising concerns about secondhand smoke exposure. We are helping to change the debate.

 

BioSci Careers: How should current trainees make the most of BioSci Careers’ services?

I discovered on the job that research is only one element of my faculty career. I find I have many roles: as a manager, a mentor, a fundraiser, and an advocate for research. It’s important for university programs like BioSci Careers to help prepare graduate students for this increasingly complex world of biomedical research.

Traditionally, training in how to lead a research group was not built into the postdoctoral experience. That is changing with the new professional development courses that BioSci Careers offers.  Also, public advocacy is an important, acquired talent because you may be called upon to speak publicly about your research. It is very helpful to learn how to communicate with the public and the press – before finding yourself on the phone with the news media!

Fortunately, I did grant writing during my last postdoctoral position, which may seem like a chore, but it meant that when I had to start writing my own grants, I was not an amateur.

 

Matt Springer in his final year of graduate school, circa 1992.

Stanford Preparation: How did your Stanford training prepare you for your career of choice?

My training on the graduate and postdoc levels prepared me well to tackle many types of research questions independently.  Being immersed in the research activities in the labs of my three successful professors, each having their different research styles, prepared me for my career and the rigors of academic research.

 

Advice for graduate students:

There is no one definition of science, and you need to have faith in your own abilities as a scientist. Some scientists believe that science should be done their way – and their way only – because they believe they know how science should work, but: What if you are asking a question that they are not asking? What if you want to try a new approach?

My advice is: don't devote your career to doing what other people think is important and interesting; devote it to doing what YOU think is important and interesting (within the range of fundability, of course).

As Steve Jobs once said, “Don’t live someone else’s life.”


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