Lights…camera…action! Mayo Clinic and its successful research mentoring program, known as SPARK, took center stage at the St. Johns County School District Academy Awards on April 2. The awards recognize members of Florida’s business community for opportunities and resources they provide to area high schools through St. Johns Career Academies, which encourage students to explore a designated field of study.
Mayo’s Florida campus earned the Innovative Internship Award for SPARK, which stands for Science Program for the Advancement of Research Knowledge. The program pairs science-oriented high school students with Mayo research mentors in an effort to boost interest in scientific research. “We have truly appreciated the initiative and countless hours that Mayo has placed into this program,” Mari Ellen Asplen, Academic Administrator of Ponte Vedra High School in Ponte Vedra, Florida, says of the award. “It has impacted students in a significant way.”
In its inaugural year, SPARK included nine students from local school districts—and has grown to include a total of 30 students for the current program. Each SPARK student completes at least 200 hours in one of 19 Mayo laboratories on projects related to cancer, heart disease, neurodegenerative disease, regenerative medicine and the design of potential new drugs. The scholars gain experience in basic science, the research process, critical thinking and professional conduct – and they do it all in Mayo’s world-class facilities.
“SPARK exposes students to the real world of scientific inquiry and provides an environment and tools where one can follow his or her innate curiosity to solve real world problems,” says John Copland III, Ph.D., professor of cancer biology at Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science. “Students are provided living examples of success stories all around them from physicians in training, to Ph.D. doctoral students, to post-doctoral fellows to successful faculty. These are living roadmaps to model their own success story.”
SPARK participants also learn scientific communication by entering their projects in science fairs. Their work has been impressively rewarded at regional and state competitions. For example, SPARK alumnus Tim Kellet earned second place at the Northeast Florida Regional Science and Engineering Fair and at the State Science and Engineering Fair of Florida in 2018 for his research with Aneel Paulus, M.D., on a rare type of cancer called Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia.
Kellet was a high school senior when he entered SPARK in 2017; he now studies biochemistry at Florida State University (FSU). He is currently part of a research team studying the effects of certain viral proteins expressed by Kaposi Sarcoma-associated Herpesvirus on the innate immune response of cells. “SPARK has helped me greatly,” he says, by opening the door to his current work at FSU and by teaching him the research techniques needed to succeed there.
“Life changing and unforgettable” is how another SPARK student, Katherine Rodriguez, describes the program. This current high school senior worked with Rachel Sarabia Estrada, Ph.D., in the Brain Tumor Stem Cell Research Laboratory to explore whether melatonin at high concentrations can prolong patient prognosis in patients with stage 1 breast cancer.
“I enjoyed conducting the research each day, attending weekly lab meetings and neuroscience seminars, and gaining exposure to tools needed to succeed in a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) career,” Rodriguez says. This fall she will continue her education at the University of Rochester in New York where she plans to earn a degree in biology with a focus on neuroscience before pursuing medical school.
The ultimate aim of SPARK’s distinctive mentor-based model is to nurture enthusiasm for research among talented high schoolers like Kellet and Rodriguez. “SPARK is lighting the way for the next generation of researchers,” says Tushar Patel, M.B., Ch.B., dean for Research at Mayo Clinic’s Florida campus. “Future medical discoveries that have the potential to transform patient care will someday be in the hands of capable young scientists. SPARK gives them the tools and experiences they need to begin to fulfill this potential.”
“Because of the unique experiences offered by SPARK, new unimagined dreams are imagined and empowered,” Copland adds. “Stay tuned.”
SPARK is offered through the Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. Students are selected for the program by Mayo faculty mentors based on a one-page proposal of original research they want to pursue. Selection criteria also include having a 3.5 unweighted GPA, letters of recommendation from teachers or others, and one-on-one interviews. Selected students complete required lab safety training. For more information, visit the SPARK website.