Julie Spencer: Charting Coronaviruses

April 20, 2020 | By Eve Tolpa

Julie Spencer (SF86) harvesting potatoes.

Julie Spencer (SF86) can’t get away from her work right now.

That’s true of a lot of people doing their jobs from home in the time of COVID-19. In Spencer’s case, though, the focus of that work is the virus itself.

A PhD candidate in biology at the University of New Mexico and a graduate assistant at Los Alamos National Labs (LANL), she has spent recent months finishing the final chapter of her dissertation and publishing a scientific article preprint (which, because it’s not peer-reviewed, can be made available in days rather than months). The article, Spencer’s first, charts averages for epidemiological parameters of the six coronaviruses in existence prior to the advent of the novel coronavirus causing the current pandemic.

Spencer never expected her professional life to intersect with a matter of such global urgency. Her career path was circuitous and serendipitous, with phases including full-time parent, massage therapist, charter school founder, and, eventually, graduate student.

But there was one constant that guided her choices: New Mexico.

She grew up in Los Lunas, just south of Albuquerque. In high school, of her own volition, she read copious amounts of Aristotle and Thoreau. “Thoreau had convinced me that the most important thing to do was to grow food, so I wanted to be a farmer,” says Spencer, who wasn’t even planning to go to college. “I read a lot, but I didn’t realize that you could study agriculture in college, or classics or philosophy.”

Spencer spent her junior and senior years of high school in Salt Lake City. When she heard that an admissions rep from St. John’s Santa Fe was visiting her school, she flashed back to a memory of New Mexico’s stunning blue sky and decided to set up a meeting. “[The counselor] said something about reading Plato in the original Greek, and I just about passed out.”

For Spencer, St. John’s was undoubtedly the right college. “I’m one of those card-carrying Johnnies who will tell you that the internal value of what I got there grows exponentially in every year that I live,” she says. “I fell in love with math there.”

After graduating, marrying, and staying at home with her first child, Spencer became a massage therapist and moved to Angel Fire, New Mexico, to start a practice. It was from there that she completed a distance-learning program in classics, studying Latin and Greek at the University of Wales in the United Kingdom.

In 2002, when her son (Joseph Haggard (SF10)) reached high school age, she decided to cofound a school. “[He] was in 8th grade, and there was no high school in Angel Fire,” Spencer recalls. The community’s 100 or so students attended school in Taos or Cimarron, requiring long and sometimes treacherous commutes.

Charter legislation had just been passed in New Mexico, and the time was right for Spencer and her 11 cofounders to act. “I ended up being the person who chose the Paideia model, which, like St. John’s, engages students directly with difficult original texts in discussion format,” she says.

“I wrote the charter, I wrote the entire curriculum,” says Spencer. “I was just a Johnnie with a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts, and I had zero experience. I wasn’t a certified teacher. I read the charter law, I read the state’s education documents. I had never done grant writing, but I had 100% success in it. When you graduate from St. John’s, you can learn anything. That’s what they tell you, and it’s true.”

She enlisted fellow Johnnies to serve as the first faculty members and director. For years, the school—Moreno Valley High School—was ranked by U.S. News and World Report as the number one public high school in the state.

Spencer credits her success to the “sheer chutzpah to go ahead and take the bull by the horns and learn how to do that stuff. I’m a mission-based person. When I’m on a mission, you better not try to stop me.”

Those same qualities are what led her to return to school at age 48 to become a biologist. The process, she says, required her to go “back to square one.” She got the equivalent of an undergraduate biology degree and then secured a funded space in a PhD program, both at UNM: first at the school’s Taos campus, then at its flagship location in Albuquerque—the city where she mostly raised her younger child, Sarah Kane Moser, currently a biology major at Bard College.

“I was always interested in science and always wanted to be a scientist,” Spencer says. Building off her love for ancient languages, she leapt into evolutionary biology, studying “the language of DNA, a language that’s in its infancy and very relevant to the well-being of humanity.”

While delving into applied calculus and disease modeling, Spencer found her path veering toward mathematical epidemiology, where she focused on antibiotic-resistant strains of tuberculosis—a disease that first captured her interest at St. John’s.

“I was really moved by Dostoevsky, and Dostoevsky wrote a lot of descriptions of it,” she says. (Spencer also wrote her senior paper on the Russian author.) “TB is a bacterium, and the way it has evolved drug-resistance is really amazing.”

In January 2019 she secured a graduate assistant position at LANL and began working with mathematical epidemiologists. Since summer 2019 she has been researching five of the common viruses that underlie influenza-like illness: influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), rhinovirus, adenovirus, and coronavirus (including four coronaviruses that have been circulating for a long time, plus the more recent newcomers MERS and SARS).

Then, “all of a sudden COVID-19 hit,” she says.

Spencer’s dissertation had already addressed tuberculosis and common viruses underlying seasonal influenza-like illness; she is now adding a third chapter that specifically relates to the novel coronavirus.

“I’m doing a mitigation model for New Mexico,” she says. “One aspect of running the scenarios is to be able to say ‘what if.’ What if we could test everyone in New Mexico? What if we knew for sure who has it or not? What would we do differently? The field of disease modeling [allows us to] explore the parameters to get a range of outcomes. Public health decisions can be made.”

Before this year, mathematical epidemiology felt like a historical exercise for Spencer. “Now it’s my job to focus on COVID-19,” she says. “This is what I’ve been studying all the time. It’s all really happening. It’s really exciting and really upsetting at the same time. I feel a part of this international community of scientists. It’s pretty incredible.”

“I’ve been participating in CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] conference calls, primarily a forum for people to share data and documents and to talk,” she adds. “I’m only a graduate student, even though I am 56, and I’m amazed that I can participate.”

Spencer is on track to complete her dissertation in May 2020, and in June she will start a post-doctoral position at LANL. Notably, none of her educational or career opportunities have required her to leave New Mexico.

“I only applied to one college: St. John’s. I only applied to one graduate school: UNM. I totally did the counterintuitive thing and put all my eggs in one basket,” says Spencer, who now lives in Santa Fe.

“New Mexico is such an amazing place. It’s so beautiful, and the people here are so incredible. I think there’s an exceptional creativity per capita,” she says. “When I focus on what’s in front of me, surprising things happen.”