Dr. Fredrick Sparling

“Its All About Seizing Opportunity”

by Samar Sheth


I’m confused. I have no idea what type of medicine I want to go into, and I have no idea what type of practice I want, private or academic, clinical or basic science research, big city or small town. I think it’s a feeling many medical students feel, one of a sheer anxiousness… “Am I good enough to do this?… Can I launch a successful career?” As time has continued its march, I’ve seen that personal interactions and seemingly chance experiences have not only shaped my likes and dislikes, but of my peers as well. I also see that a little luck and being at the proverbial “right place at the right time” is all it often takes to dramatically alter or change paths. We students are not alone; even the greats of our profession have grappled with these feelings of uncertainty.


Dr. Fredrick Sparling, a role model to many throughout his medical career, is one such physician who underwent a variety of experiences that changed his view as well as helped him to have what he calls prepared luck to further his career and to mold it into something unique and something that he is very proud of.


I recently had the opportunity and privilege to sit down and talk to Dr. Sparling, former Division Chief of Infectious Disease, former Chair of the Department of Microbiology, Emeritus Chair of the Department of Medicine, and current director of the Southeast Regional Center for Excellence in Emerging Infections and Biodefense (SERCEB). An illustrious resume’ indeed.


When I walked into to his office I was greeted by a firm handshake and a warm smile. As we sat down I asked him to tell me how he got to where he is today, and his interesting and encouraging story began.


Dr. Sparling is from the rural Midwest. He went to a consolidated high school outside Chicago in a very rural area where roughly half the students were from farming families. During high school he took advantage of an opportunity to travel abroad as an exchange student to Germany. While there he stayed with an ex-Nazi family just a mere 8 years after the end of World War II. He described the experience as “life changing.” During his time abroad he realized how biased media, both American and German, could be and how a bit of skepticism was could be very useful when searching for “truth.”   Upon returning home to the United States he discussed his family’s difficulty understanding what Germany was really like post WWII. He struggled to convince them that the Germany he saw during his experience was not the country portrayed by the mainstream media in the United States.


Upon graduating high school and armed with his new world view Dr. Sparling decided to head to Princeton for college. He described himself as a solid, but not stellar student. Yet, it was his curiosity and life experience that drove his success and the opportunity to attend an Ivy league college from such a Midwest upbringing At Princeton he majored in premed, driven by childhood experiences with asthma and the example of the healing powers of his family pediatrician.

He applied to a variety of schools and as a bit of an afterthought he decided to apply to Harvard Medical School. To his surprise, his admission was granted. This fortuitous and at the time “random” break would serve as a primary influence on his life and future career plans. 


In medical school, Dr. Sparling improved his academic performance, although it is difficult to tell based on the humility with which he describes his life at Harvard. After completing school he began an internal medicine residency at Massachusetts General Hospital where he was one of only 12 interns. During his intern year he formed a relationship with an infectious diseases physician by the name of Mort Swartz. Dr. Swartz’s family had been killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. He described his mentor, as gentle, having a fabulous wealth of knowledge, and an excellent teacher, never ‘pimping’ anyone. While in Boston he intentionally began to pattern his career after Dr. Swartz. He strove to develop the knowledge that he admired in his friend and mentor and became interested in the subspecialty field of Infectious Disease.


Another important influence on Dr. Sparling from his time in Boston was Harold Amos, a brilliant microbiologist, who at the time was one of the very few African-American faculty members at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Amos was remarkable in that he took the time to meet each student. The relationship he cultivated with his pupils was characterized by a spirit of gentle sophistication and a welcoming compassion. The value of this relationship was not lost on the young Dr. Sparling and the lesson would greatly influence his approach to his students throughout his educational career.


The intern year at MGH was a challenging time in Dr. Sparling’s life. His time was stretched extremely thin, with new responsibilities of patient care and an aspiring interest in research. During the fall of his intern year, many of his fellow interns had started applying for fellowships and research positions to allow them to avoid the military doctors’ draft . Although previously naive to extensive basic science research, Dr. Sparling applied as well. He initially had interest in doing research at the NIH, but was too late in applying and received an offer to pursue his last choice: working at the Centers for Disease Control Venereal Disease Research Laboratories in Atlanta. This “bad luck” would serve as a formative move for his career. 


After moving to Atlanta and getting acclimated to the CDC, he quickly found his research to be mundane and “boring”. However in retrospect he said that that time helped him develop his own interests and the initiative to pursue them. He had no direction and no real mentors and eventually started going to the Emory library to read. Although many others were working with syphilis, he was not interested in the studies and trials that were ongoing. He saw an opportunity in working with the gonococcus, particularly establishing genetic systems to study the organism. He began teaching himself science out of journals and successfully published a paper as the single author. Due to his research successes at the CDC he was then invited to work in a variety of labs back at Harvard.  Following another two years of research in basic microbial genetics and biochemistry, he took a clinical fellowship in infectious diseases under Dr. Swartz. He took this story to present a very important teaching point to any student interested in becoming a physician scientist. If you decide to be a clinician scientist with a productive basic science lab career, you need to pick a lab to train in that will prepare you thoroughly in the fundamentals of the work.


As Dr. Sparling approached the end of his clinical fellowship, he began a job search. While at a national research meeting, he was introduced to Dr. Joe Pagano, now the Emertius director of Lineberger Cancer center. This introduction began a dialogue in which Dr. Pagano invited Dr. Sparling to come and work at UNC numerous times. At first he questioned working at UNC, however after talking to various mentors and other graduates of the MGH program, he elected to take the position. Not only was he given clinical time, he was given lab space as well in the department of microbiology. This dual-appointment allowed him to continue to develop as a clinician-scientist, an opportunity that may not have been available without the support of both departments.


When deciding on his specific research focus at UNC, he described himself as both “lucky” and “prepared”. His background at the CDC had given him a unique skill set and a concurrent unique interest in venereal diseases research. Although his lab training at Harvard had been strictly E coli, a “proper object of study”, he decided to branch out into his old friend the gonococcus shortly after arriving at UNC, looking at the genetics of drug resistance. Jokingly he says that he was “the only clinician in the US who read the British Journal of Venereal Disease”. From the experiments conducted during his early days at UNC, based on tools and curiosity developed during his research fellowship, Dr. Sparling would launch his impressive research career on gonococcal antibiotic resistance and molecular pathogenesis. 


After a relatively short time at UNC he became Chief of the Division of Infectious Disease.  Following this appointment, he was then presented with the opportunity to become Chair of the Department of Microbiology, a move that was unheard of because of his background as an MD and not a PhD. For the next eight years he led the department, focusing his efforts on his research and undertaking minimal clinical responsibilities. Dr. Sparling continued to succeed in his leadership roles and again he was offered the position of Chair of the Department of Medicine. This new position change was the largest of his career. Dr. Sparling was thrust into being involved primarily in the clinical aspects of medicine, including managed care and the increasing fiscal challenges that dominated the healthcare landscape. After making the adjustment he remained as the department’s chair 10 years, maintaining a research lab, and enjoying especially the students, residents and faculty with whom he worked. After a brief attempt at retirement, Dr. Sparling has returned to the world of medicine and is now the director of SERCEB.


Dr. Sparling describes himself as “very happy” with his current position, saying that he has worked on both sides, clinical and basic science and feels that he possess the unique ability to bring these sometimes divergent entities together. He works with people throughout the US and continues to feel that UNC has the most collaborative atmosphere he has experienced. He describes his position as a “conductor” and this is appropriate…. No longer does his play the individual violin, trombone, or tympani drum, but instead he brings many groups together, all the while making “beautiful music”.  


Whether accidents, gifts, or a “bunch of good luck”, Dr. Sparling has formed an extremely successful career in research and clinical medicine. Although he says he never really knew what he wanted to do, with the direction of various mentors and some seemingly fortuitous breaks, he has certainly become a success. His advice, “follow your nose and do what you do well, and then focus on the moment and you will go forward.”


As I was leaving Dr. Sparling’s office I felt much better about the somewhat uncertain process that lay ahead in my own career… specialty choice, residency, fellowship, career plans… the decisions sometimes seem daunting. Yet, I was comforted knowing that “chance”, at least on this day, had given me the opportunity to speak with someone who was no stranger to the time and chance that life can bring. And as I thought of how well things had turned out for him and potential that I saw in my own life, I smiled.