Not If, But When: Spotlight on Chelsey Spriggs

Feb. 26, 2024

Chelsey Spriggs, Ph.D.
Source: American Society for Microbiology
To speak with Chelsey Spriggs, Ph.D., about her career is to understand what passion looks like. Spriggs, an assistant professor of cellular and developmental biology and microbiology and immunology at the University of Michigan, studies virus-host interactions; her excitement about the topic is more contagious than any virus could ever be. Yet, while leading her own lab has long been Spriggs’ goal, the path to getting there has had its challenges. As she’s navigated the twists, turns, barriers and biases entrenched in academia, Spriggs has learned 2 important things. The first is the importance of finding community wherever one can. The second? “Believe in yourself, whatever you decide you want to do. A lot of people come into grad school wanting to be PIs [principal investigators]—and you have to tell yourself you can do it. Get rid of the ‘what ifs’ [and] ‘maybes’ and go for it."

When she began her undergraduate career at Michigan State University, Spriggs knew she wanted to pursue science. Growing up in Detroit, she always thought science was “the coolest class”—though the topic wasn’t just reserved for the classroom. Spriggs fondly remembers completing “crazy” experiments with her mom at home, one of which—an intricate project exploring whether electricity can help plants grow—earned her a big win at the citywide science fair in ninth grade.

But microbiology? Well, she sort of fell into that. Michigan State didn’t offer a general biology degree, which meant she had to choose between microbiology or biochemistry. A little push from her friend—a stressed biochemistry major who encouraged her to stay far, far away—solidified her decision. And what an important decision it was. “It was the best thing that [could have] happened," Spriggs said. “It really redirected my whole journey."

Her experience studying polyomaviruses (double-stranded DNA viruses that can cause cancer) in the lab of Michele Fluck, Ph.D., was particularly enriching. The lab explored how a mouse polyomavirus transformed cells as a model for breast cancer transformation. “I thought it was so cool that you could study a microbe to learn about the microbe [itself], but also about other aspects of biology and disease. I loved it,” Spriggs said.

Still, despite her time working with Fluck, it didn’t click for Spriggs that a research career was an option. When she graduated, she followed the only path she thought was available for people who “like science and get good grades”: become a clinician. Spriggs went to medical school—and promptly hated it. The material wasn’t mechanistic enough for her. Sure, she acknowledged, understanding how parts of the kidney connect is important, but “I wanted more. I wanted to understand what’s going on at a deeper level."

It was a memory from her senior year of college that triggered a lightbulb moment. Spriggs had attended a microbiology club meeting with some of her Fluck lab mates; while everyone munched on free pizza, a representative from the University of Michigan shared how Ph.D. programs were free and offered stipends to all their students. Cue the record scratch—free? A stipend for all students? Spriggs was floored. But only as she sat unhappily in med school did it fully occur to her that she could dive into mechanistic science and get paid to do it (a fact that quickly sold her parents on the idea of graduate school).

So, Spriggs left medical school. She worked in the Fluck lab as she compiled her grad school applications before ultimately heading to Northwestern University to pursue her Ph.D. While studying human papillomavirus (HPV) in the lab of Laimonis Lamins, Ph.D., Spriggs realized that virus-host interactions had fully captured her science heart. “I love studying how viruses use our proteins and pathways [and] manipulate them in certain ways. I think it’s cool that a lot of fundamental biology has been discovered by studying [these] pathogens,” Spriggs shared, pointing to nuclear localization sequences and the tumor suppressor protein, p53, as key examples.

Spriggs headed back to Michigan for her postdoc, where she continued to feed her passion for viruses. She landed a position in the laboratory of Billy Tsai, Ph.D., at the University of Michigan. There, in a callback to her Fluck Lab days, Spriggs investigated mechanisms by which SV40 polyomavirus—an archetypal polyomavirus that causes cancers in lab animals, and possibly humans—disassembles and traffics to the nucleus to cause infection. Understanding these mechanisms could help develop therapeutic strategies for human disease. Notably, Spriggs was awarded a Burroughs Wellcome Fund fellowship, which provides $60,000 over 3 years to support the career development of postdocs from historically underrepresented groups.

And Spriggs’ career has indeed developed. In 2022, she opened her own lab at the University of Michigan focused on how oncogenic (cancer-causing) and oncolytic (cancer-fighting) viruses enter host cells. The oncolytic virus branch of her research—which centers on parvoviruses, small ssDNA viruses that show promise for fighting tumors—was an entirely new world for Spriggs. She had long been fascinated with oncolytic viruses and wanted to study them. The only drawback: she had never worked with parvoviruses. That didn’t stop her, though.

“When I was putting together my faculty applications, I was like, ‘What if I just shoot my shot? What if I say I’m going to do it and see what they say?’ And everyone was like, ‘We believe you [can do it].” “We” being the University of Michigan and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, which awarded Spriggs a K99/R00 award through their Maximizing Opportunities for Scientific and Academic Independent Careers (MOSAIC) program, designed to facilitate the transition of postdocs from diverse backgrounds to faculty positions.  

Spriggs emphasized that the road to a faculty position is a tough one. Competition is fierce, and it’s easy to feel discouraged if you don’t check certain boxes (e.g., publishing a paper in a major scientific journal, which some institutions use as a primary metric when hiring). She reasoned that she could always do something else if becoming a PI didn’t pan out.

But she really wanted it to pan out. It was her dream. For Spriggs, the biggest game-changer in helping her achieve that dream was shifting her personal narrative. “At some point, I changed from saying ‘I’m going to try to be a PI’ to ‘I’m going to be a PI,’" she said. She wasn’t going to publish in a major scientific journal—but that didn’t mean she couldn’t find somewhere she belonged. She took it 1 step at a time, networking heavily and learning from other PIs about how they reached their goal. And Spriggs ultimately reached her goal too, becoming an assistant professor in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology with a joint appointment in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at University of Michigan.

Nevertheless, while competition for faculty jobs can be felt by anyone, there are additional challenges those from historically underrepresented groups face no matter how much they believe in themselves. Spriggs routinely sees reports about how only 6% of full-time faculty are Black, that Black faculty are less likely to achieve tenure and get less funding from the National Health Institutes (NIH). “I have done all of this to get this position, and the odds are still stacked against me in ways that feel more pervasive than there [not being] many faculty positions,” Spriggs said. “When you are part of the impacted group, it can put a gray cloud over your head like, ‘Why am I even trying?’” 

Spriggs has often felt like “the only one” (and has legitimately been the only one—she is the only Black faculty in her department). But, she said, this is nothing new. “Being the first person in your department, or faculty at your institution, or postdoc or grad student in your program—those types of experiences have always existed. Both of my parents integrated their schools as children. That was not a welcoming environment, and they persevered. And now me being one of the first Black faculty in my department [and] helping to build the numbers, it can feel challenging in different ways…But it’s important to persevere, to make sure that other people have these opportunities in the future.” 

To that end, Spriggs has become a point person for students and postdocs across STEM who just need someone to talk to. Since grad school, she has also worked in various volunteer roles to foster community among scientists from diverse backgrounds, introduce them to careers in STEM and show them that they are not alone. A highlight of her outreach efforts: co-founding the Black Microbiologists Association (BMA). BMA aims to support the collective work of pursuing equity in diverse sectors through advocacy, professional development, science communication and outreach.

The organization grew out of the first Black in Micro Week, held in 2020. The online event was designed to showcase and amplify the voices of Black microbiologists from around the globe. Spriggs was a team lead for the event, along with 5 other women postdocs and a graduate student, though she highlighted that many organizers were key to making it happen. When the week ended, participants (particularly graduate and undergraduate students) weren’t ready for it to be over—they wanted more. By the beginning of 2021, Spriggs and her colleagues were working with a lawyer to incorporate themselves as a non-profit. The organization has since hosted 3 Black in Micro weeks, created a searchable online database for job openings, fostered a forum for networking and hosted various online and in-person events, including operating a booth at ASM Microbe 2023.

BMA exemplifies the advice Spriggs often gives to scientists from historically underrepresented groups: find your community wherever you can. It doesn’t have to be in your lab, your department or even your institution. It can be online, too. Moreover, “your community doesn’t have to look just like you,” Spriggs noted. “Some of my best friends are from different cultures. [It’s about] finding people that understand your essence, who you are and really have your best interest at heart.” Of course, that doesn’t mean that making connections with people who share a similar background isn’t valuable, Spriggs continued. “It’s important to have people who understand your specific perspective [and] who get what it's like to feel isolated or lonely. But your community doesn't have to share your same identity.”

With all she’s done so far, both in and outside the lab, it’s little wonder Spriggs was named one of Cell Mentor’s 1,000 most inspiring Black scientists in America. Yet, Spriggs noted that it is through the collective work of all kinds of people that will shape science moving forward. “I am looking forward to seeing what science looks like in the future,” she said. “Regardless of their backgrounds, there are a lot of people who are putting in really good work toward promoting diversity in academia.” 

Author: Madeline Barron, Ph.D.

Madeline Barron, Ph.D.
Madeline Barron, Ph.D. is the Science Communications Specialist at ASM. She obtained her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology.