Advancing the Science

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January 8, 2020

Mentoring, science fair ignite SPARK in high school students

By Advancing the Science contributor
diverse group of high school students posing with Mayo researchers on a raised stage with SPARK signage on screens behind
SPARK class of 2019

Growing up, Rishi Misra watched his grandmother add fragrant Indian spices to family meals. In ninth grade, Misra came across a study showing that these spices have antibacterial properties. This piqued his interest in science – a curiosity being nurtured by Mayo Clinic's research mentoring program known as SPARK.

SPARK stands for Science Program for the Advancement of Research Knowledge. The program pairs science-oriented high school students with Mayo faculty mentors in an effort to boost youth interest in research. In 2019, the program admitted 30 scholars from eight high schools in Florida, each of whom completed at least 200 hours in one of Mayo's world-class laboratories.

SPARK scholars gain experience in basic science, the research process, critical thinking and professional conduct.

And at the 3rd annual SPARK "mini science fair" on Dec. 11, they demonstrated newfound communication skills, too.

people reviewing posters in a crowed room with historical image of Mayo brothers on wall in background

The science fair was attended by family members, high school faculty and Mayo mentors and advisors in a packed Kinne Auditorium at Mayo Clinic in Florida. Through posters and one-on-one Q & A sessions with judges, the scholars relayed their findings from projects related to cancer, heart disease, neurodegenerative disease, regenerative medicine and the design of potential new drugs. Each participant was invited on stage to receive recognition and a glass plaque from the event's emcee, André Watkins.

“It takes high caliber students like these to engage in science,” says Keith Knutson, Ph.D., cancer immunologist and SPARK faculty mentor. “Not only do they have to learn a lot of information in the short time that they’re here, but they also have to design and conduct an experiment and then present their research. I’m impressed with these intelligent, motivated students."

"We’re investing in the next generation of researchers by providing them with the encouragement, skills and experiences needed to start down the path of a science career,” adds Tushar Patel, M.B., Ch.B., dean for research at Mayo Clinic in Florida. “We look forward to the contributions that these talented students will make in future medical discoveries and finding cures."

The science fair culminates the research activities of SPARK participants, who completed their work over the summer.

The scholars will go on to compete in local, regional, national, and international science fairs. SPARK work has been impressively rewarded at large competitions. For example, SPARK scholar Ashton Body placed third at the 2019 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for her work with Dev Mukhopadhyay, Ph.D., and Vijay Madamsetty, Ph.D., on targeted drug delivery for drug-resistant cancer.

Rishi Misra standing next to his three-paneled poster displayed on a table in poster exhibit hall
SPARK scholar Rishi Misra with his research poster on display at Mayo Clinic.

Misra, the curious student who once connected cooking with health science, is now a high school senior with plans to major in pre-med for a potential career in science. Through SPARK, he worked with Panos Anastasiadis, Ph.D., Ruifeng Lu, Ph.D., and Lindy Pence to study a molecule with the potential to suppress pancreatic tumors. Misra's participation in SPARK confirmed his enthusiasm for the pursuit of a science-focused future – and he’s already on his way. He won first place in an undergraduate poster competition (See his abstract, P2399/B653, available here: https://www.ascb.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/2019PosterAbstracts.pdf) at a recent joint meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology and the European Molecular Biology Organization, held in Washington, D.C. A high schooler, he competed with more than 100 undergraduates from around the globe. "I want to put my knowledge to practice working in a world-class laboratory like Mayo Clinic," he says.

"SPARK continues to grow each year and we are so pleased with the interest these students have in science," says cancer biologist John Copland, Ph.D., who directs the SPARK program. "We're gratified that Mayo Clinic is able to make such a profound impact on the lives of these students and the future of discovery.”  

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Tags: basic science, Dev Mukhopadhyay, John Copland III, Keith Knutson, News, Panos Anastasiadis, People, research, research education, Ruifeng Lu, Tushar Patel, Vijay Madamsetty

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