For Spencer Fox, the sound of accomplishment is the sound of fresh, crackling sourdough coming out of the oven.
“There’s nothing like it,” said Fox, who is graduating May 10 with a USC Viterbi master’s degree in materials engineering. “With just four simple ingredients, you can feed an entire world: flour, water, salt and yeast. And steam. Steam is very important if you want to get that crispiness just right.”
Like many things in Fox’s life, it took a lot of trial and error to master. But when he realized he could make bakery-quality bread — the very stuff of life — in his own kitchen with just four ingredients, he became a dedicated bread-maker.
“More like a bread idiot,” he likes to interject. “You have no idea how much shitty bread I’ve made. It’s part of the family motto: ‘instructions are for idiots.’ Call it persistence, not stubbornness.”
For Fox, bread isn’t just an afterthought on the table or simply a building block for sandwiches – breaking open a fresh, steamy loaf of bread is an experience that evokes nostalgia.
Fox was 13 years old when a snowboarding accident in Utah left him paralyzed. He was on vacation with his mother, Celia Brewer, an attorney, and if it hadn’t been for the next guy down the mountain, a doctor, who saw him fall and was able to flag down ski patrol, Spencer Fox would most likely not be here today. With his neck broken and lungs collapsed, he was helicoptered to the nearest hospital where the prognosis came like an avalanche on the family.
“One second, I was an active kid, playing basketball, riding mountain bikes, and snowboarding. The next second, I was a quadriplegic, unable to move or feel anything below my chest,” Fox remembers.
When he returned home, after nearly four months in the hospital, his house had to be retrofitted with ramps and wider doors. He started high school in a wheelchair and needed an aide to take notes and help him navigate campus.
He made it through by choosing not to focus on the tragedy.
“There was no mental build up. My mom signed me up for gym like a week after I got out of the hospital,” Fox said. “If you don’t stop moving it’s hard to be afraid of moving.”
He buried himself in his studies and achieved a 4.3 GPA. But the new reality of uninsured medical expenses also put a heavy strain on his family’s resources, leaving little for education.
Then came Swim with Mike, giving Fox a scholarship to study chemical engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, covering tuition, housing and books. Fox said his mom was so happy, she couldn’t stop crying for three days straight.
“Swim with Mike basically opened every door in my life,” Fox said. “Even now, when I’m looking for a job, I can reach out for mentorship and support from their network. I simply can’t say enough about them.”
The organization, which gives physically challenged students scholarships to achieve the dream of a college education, has raised over $21 million in 38 years, supporting 231 scholarships at 122 different schools. But they also gave Fox what he desired the most – a chance to give back to others. He regularly mentors Swim with Mike applicants and new scholarship recipients.
“The things I find inspiring is what you do for other people – not what I did for myself.”
At USC Viterbi’s Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, he’s also a course producer helping professors in organizing, instructing, and grading student work in several chemical engineering courses.
“Many people after hearing my story come up to me to say ‘Oh, you’re so inspiring.’ I never understood that,” he said. “The things I find inspiring is what you do for other people – not what I did for myself.”
Fox is now seeking career opportunities, with a particular interest in materials research sustainability, studying material failure and fatigue or why materials break. He hopes to create new materials one day and credits professors Andrea Armani and Ted Lee Jr. with focusing his interests.
“Growing up, I was very scientific about breaking things, that’s what I’m doing now, so I guess I haven’t changed much,” he said.
Materials research will have to wait because his mother has organized a European adventure. The graduation trip will undoubtedly include a bread tour of Europe’s most legendary bakeries. The trip also bears another significance. It will be the first mother-son trip since that fateful accident in Utah – a great victory lap for a mother-son team that never stopped moving.
Want to try to be your own “bread idiot” and master the art of the sourdough? Here is Spencer Fox’s Ultimate Sourdough Recipe.