Courtney Krider was in eighth grade when she was first bit by the science bug. "That's when I started to take more diverse science classes that focused on chemistry and life sciences," she tells us. "I had a really good teacher and got to do a lot of cool labs, and that jump-started my interest."
Two years later, that interest would get an extra kick when Courtney heard about a new program being offered by Mayo Clinic's Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences in Florida. The program, called the Science Program for the Advancement of Research Knowledge (or SPARK, for short) pairs science-minded high school students like Courtney with "mentored research experiences in world-class laboratories" … like the ones found on Mayo Clinic's Florida campus.
SPARK program coordinator Sharon Collins tells us interest in the program is high. "We have far more applicants than we do openings in our labs, and the students who are accepted into the program truly are the best of the best," she says. To be considered, students "need to be enrolled as a junior or senior at a Duval or St. Johns County High School in Florida for the upcoming school year." They also need to have "a minimum of a 3.5 unweighted grade point average, and letters of recommendation from a current high school science teacher and guidance counselor."
Students pick a research area of interest at Mayo Clinic, come up with a research-related hypothesis, and write an abstract about it. Courtney had no shortage of ideas. "I'd initially written about how nicotine from e-cigarettes can affect angiogenesis," Courtney tells us. "I submitted the abstract, and my lab mentor really liked it but said it would cost too much money, so I wrote a new one on how a certain neurotransmitter called acetylcholine can affect the development of chemotherapy resistance in non-small cell lung cancer patients."
That one turned out to be a winner, and after a round of interviews with Mayo Clinic faculty, it got Courtney invited into the biochemistry research lab of Dev Mukhopadhyay, Ph.D. There she found that the path to answers isn't always a straight one. The initial results of her experiment were the opposite of what she expected.
After coming to grips with that, she sat down and began to dive into the results, and a different story began to emerge. "I started to realize I'd actually gotten some pretty interesting and useful data, which helped me understand that a lot of what really matters in science is putting all of the information together without jumping to conclusions."
That's a mindset Courtney carried into her second year in the program, where she spent this past summer in the research lab of Abba Zubair, M.D., Ph.D., looking into whether "mesenchymal stem cells pre-treated in hypoxic conditions tend to have an increase in potency and possible clinical applications." (We were wondering that, too.) Just like year one, Courtney says it was intense, difficult and time-consuming work with its share of ups and downs. One concrete finding emerged, however. The medical research life really is for Courtney. "The SPARK program has helped me figure out that research is something I want to continue doing well into the future," she says. "Without these experiences, I wouldn't fully understand how the scientific process works."
You can read more about Courtney and her involvement in Mayo's SPARK program here.
This story originally appeared on Mayo Clinic's In the Loop blog.