A passion for science made Spencer Winter a CSU Trustee Scholar

Spencer Winter | Photo by Brent Dundore-Arias

Spencer Winter | Photo by Brent Dundore-Arias

September 26, 2022

By Mark C. Anderson

The sheer quantity of the accomplishments Spencer Hart Winter has amassed in a short period of time is striking. 

His honors include a Goldwater Scholarship, a Sally Casanova Scholarship and top rankings at UROC Research and CalTech Summer Research Experience competitions. (In his spare time he also edits and publishes an art journal for people studying STEM called Creative Scientists.)

Now he’s earned recognition as a 2022 CSU Trustees Scholar, a lofty distinction given to one student per Cal State campus annually. 

More striking, however, is Winter’s unabashed enthusiasm for science.

“It’s a career path where every day I can wake up and think about something new,” he says. “There’s something that hasn’t been done! It keeps me on my toes, and keeps me going. Every day I’m learning something new and something I haven’t heard before, which is very exciting!”

His particular field therein—molecular programming, a subfield of bioengineering—presents all sorts of uncharted territory, especially with something that sounds less science fact and more science fiction.

“DNA-based robots have a lot of potential,” Winter says. “They're sustainable and biodegradable, and have possible avenues both as smart medicine delivery systems and as environmental cleanup crews since they can naturally sense and respond to molecules. The other hope is that they may give us some insight into how our own nervous systems developed.”

He happily will talk at length about the potential future applications of the robots he lays the groundwork for, such as smart medicines, ecological cleanup crews, or as surgical assistants that can identify and eliminate cancer cells.

“You’re going to get me going on this!” he says with a laugh. “The field is brand new. The possibilities are infinite. I’m excited about building the base robot.”

Another key aspect of Winter’s inspiring approach: He is intent on elevating others.

In fact, a primary reason he’s now the Trustee Emerita Claudia H. Hampton Scholar is that he wants to give back to the CSU system as a professor — teaching, at any level and any school, is a prerequisite for that particular category of the scholarship. 

He seeks to uplift in other ways as well. Winter, who is transgender, provides guest lectures at area community colleges that describe the transgender experience to future educators.

The most important point there, to Winter, is to observe how much opportunity is denied deserving individuals. 

“The amount of deference I got as a man rather than a woman was extraordinary,” he says. “It’s kind of a horrifying difference. I can’t help but question how many are ignored because they are women or minorities.” 

His experience growing up in poverty- and crime-saturated East Palo Alto also informs his motivation to give back, and to buy into CSU’s mission to empower the underserved.

“I love that CSU is actively helping people from underrepresented backgrounds,” he says. “How many back in East Palo Alto who are forgotten about could be doing more than they are doing right now? How many are we leaving behind that I can help?”

Professor Rob Weisskirch first encountered Winter in his class on Behavioral and Emotional Disorders of Childhood and Adolescence, and recognized Winter’s talents. Weisskirch encouraged him to think more broadly about his career options beyond initial plans to be a preschool teacher.

“Spencer is one of those raw talent students who benefited from someone giving him a nudge at the right time,” Weisskirch says. “Once opportunities presented themselves, he took advantage. He picked up a dual major because he was thirsty for a challenge and to round out his expertise. Given his background, he is exactly the kind of student who can flourish at CSUMB.”

When asked how his example might serve fellow Otters, Winter demurs, saying that he hopes everyone can find “something that is enough for them.” 

But then he adds this.

“I really hope that they know there’s nothing about me that makes me uniquely able to do this—they can do it too—with planning, time management, [and] finding things and applying things,” he says. 

He continues from there, emphasizing the importance of drawing support from friends and CSUMB faculty. 

“No person is an island,” he says. “Use that help to find the thing that makes you fulfilled. It doesn’t have to be the fanciest thing, but hopefully it’s something that makes you happy as an individual.”