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13th Annual Spencer Symposium

The 13th Spencer Symposium: From Organic Chemical Reactions to 21st Century Medicine was Hosted by Florida Southern College

Jan 31, 2023

Florida Southern College hosted the 13th annual Spencer Symposium on Jan. 27, 2023, in the Carole and Marcus Weinstein Computer Sciences Center.

Lauren Austin Describing Yemanja and Her Osprey
Dr. Carmen Valdez Gauthier, Ph.D., ACS Fellow, and current
Jessie Ball DuPont Chair in the Natural Sciences Department
of Chemistry, Biochemistry, and Physics.

The unique event featured both well-known chemists and Florida Southern alumni as presenters. Family members of the late Dr. John L. Spencer, Ph.D., for whom the symposium is named, were also in attendance.

“Most faculty members in educational institutions have only been in academia, so they do not understand the broad landscape of industry and research and development,” Dr. Carmen Valdez Gauthier, Ph.D., ACS Fellow, and current Jessie Ball DuPont Chair in the Natural Sciences Department of Chemistry, Biochemistry, and Physics at Florida Southern said. “So, Jack (Dr. Spencer) brought that perspective to the classroom.”

The Presenters

Dr. Igor V. Alabugin from the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Florida State University gave the first presentation on “Energy of chemical bonds as a driving force for organic reactions: molecular springs, stereoelectronic frustration, and electron upconversion.” His specialties include design of new organic reactions for applications in drug discovery, modification of biomolecules, catalysis, and synthesis of new electronic materials. Dr. Alabugin’s accomplishments have been recognized by the Markovnikov Medal, American Chemical Society (ACS) Cope Scholar Award, George Gamow Medal, ACS Florida Award, AAAS and Fulbright Fellowships.  He is also the first recipient of all three FSU Undergraduate Awards: Teaching, Advising, and Research Mentor.  

Florida Southern’s Niko Frese ’25, a chemistry major and member of the men’s swimming team from Gelsenkirchen, Germany, provided lunch entertainment for attendees by playing selections on the piano.

FSC alumnus Hunter Desilets ’21, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in Chemical Physics at Indiana University, gave a presentation on “Improving the production method of self-supporting Si (Silicon) foils used in thin-target nuclear physics experiments.”

The final presentation was given by Dr. Jackie von Salm, Co-Founder and CSO of Psilera, Inc., a biotechnology company she co-founded in 2019 to focus on next generation psychedelic medicines based on N, N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) [Ayahuasca tea], a powerful psychedelic drug, with serotonergic effects on the human brain, which can induce a rapid and intense psychedelic experience, often referred to as a 'DMT trip' and psilocybin [magic mushrooms]. Her presentation was on “How Nature’s Chemistry Continues to Inspire 21st Century Medicine.”

Dr. von Salm has been featured in National Geographic, Nature, and the Wall Street Journal for her work in psychedelic drug discovery. She is a chemist with over a decade of experience in drug discovery and innovation. At the beginning of her career, she researched exotic marine wildlife in Antarctica and the Caribbean searching for new chemistry and natural medicines. She was named a most read author in 2017 by the American Chemical Society (ACS) for her publication on new antibiotics from Antarctic marine sponges. She later worked on novel delivery forms of Cannabis spp. and investigated which compounds are responsible for different patient experiences. This work led to being awarded the MAPS/Cosmic Sister Emerging Voices Award in 2019 and the ACS ElSohly Award for Excellence in Cannabis Chemistry in 2020. She has written multiple academic publications, book chapters, and patents on natural products drug discovery, chemical ecology, and pharmaceuticals. Dr. von Salm graduated magna cum laude with her B.A. and Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of South Florida.

“I am very grateful to our speakers for their participation in the 13th Spencer Symposium,” Dr. Gauthier said. “Our audience had the opportunity to listen to three excellent presentations involving physical organic chemistry, nuclear chemistry, and the application organic synthesis to the development of new therapeutic drugs inspired by natural products.”

Associate Professor of Chemistry Dr. Deborah Bromfield-Lee, Ph. D., said she enjoyed the symposium because it targeted her research area, which is organic chemistry. She liked the idea of approaching chemistry differently from the way it is traditionally taught in the classroom.

“Our last speaker talked about a lot of natural products and how we can utilize them to help people,” Dr. Bromfield-Lee said. “I’m a big proponent of sustainability and using what we know to modify drugs and molecules into actual usable things for patients. So, listening to today’s speaker thinking about how we can push organic chemistry and really use organic chemistry to help people, was kind of inspiring.”

“The participation of the students was great,” Dr. Gauthier said. “Dr. Spencer was an organic chemist.  We started with an organic chemist and then we ended up with someone who is looking for cures for mental health. Having Hunter, one of our students who graduated in 2021, to see him grow into a scientist and transition, not just from chemistry, but moving on to nuclear physics using the knowledge that he gained as a chemist and now he transitioned to another field. We often think chemistry is an essential science, so now I can see that in his presentation.”

Dr. Spencer’s Legacy

Dr. Spencer’s wife, Mrs. Viola Spencer, said her late husband’s desire was to pass his interest in chemistry forward.

“That was his (Dr. Spencer’s) belief, that he pass everything forward,” Mrs. Spencer said. “And to have former students here that can say, ‘This is what I did, what I’m doing, where I’m going,’ maybe this will inspire some of the younger students to say a bachelor's degree is not the end; it’s the beginning of my career.”

About Dr. John Spencer

Dr. John Spencer was a mentor to students and faculty members at FSC. Dr. Gauthier appreciates Dr. Spencer’s mentorship and his contributions to the study of chemistry and cites him as one of the reasons she joined the FSC faculty. After Dr. Spencer’s passing in 2010, Dr. Gauthier initiated the Spencer Symposium in 2011 to honor Dr. Spencer’s contributions to chemistry, education, and medicine.

“Jack made great contributions to chemistry,” Dr. Gauthier said. “He discovered a lot of the antibiotics that we use today. If you think about how life has changed significantly with the use of antibiotics, it’s an amazing thing that he was a pioneer in that area.”

Dr. Spencer started his career as a research chemist at Lederle Company in New York and then joined Eli Lilly & Co. in Indianapolis, where he held several management positions in research & development, quality control, and production. He is named on several Eli Lilly & Co. patents. He was a 50-year member of the American Chemical Society. He retired from Eli Lilly and joined the Florida Southern College Chemistry Department in 1988, where he taught Organic Chemistry.  At FSC, he held the Jessie Ball DuPont Chair in the Natural Sciences and retired in 2003 as a Professor Emeritus.

The Spencer Symposium is held at FSC each year in honor of Dr. Spencer, who was born in 1932 in Sanford, Fla., where he graduated from Seminole High School as Valedictorian. He attended Rollins College for one year and transferred to DePauw University in Indiana, where he received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry. He then went on to receive his Ph.D. with honors in organic chemistry from the University of Michigan.