• Science Saturday: Igniting the interest of young cancer researchers

Students gather for a photo during the 5th annual SPARK awards ceremony and poster symposium (2022)

The 2022 SPARK scholars gather for a photo before the Mayo Clinic SPARK Mini Science Fair on Mayo Clinic's campus in Jacksonville, Florida. Back row: Sara Wasserman, Krish Relan, Nyla Searl, Manish Kota, William Li, Garrett Davidsen, Riya Kar, Ella McCarthy. Front row: Kristi Biswas, Ysabella Wijaya, Yangying Jiang, Katie Shapiro, Esinam Ekpeh, Nia Atcherson, Katherine Jones and Hazel Parent. Not pictured: Jessica Desgroseilliers.

"My mother was diagnosed with stage 4 stomach cancer when I was 8 years old," says William Li, a high school senior at Stanton College Preparatory School in Jacksonville, Florida. "She underwent surgery, which took half her stomach. And with chemotherapy, she lost her hair and became frail. The doctors took really good care of her. From that moment on, I took an interest in cancer research and knew I wanted to be a doctor."

Li's mother is now cancer-free, but his interest in cancer research and medicine hasn't waned. When he heard from fellow students at his high school about the SPARK Research Mentorship Program at Mayo Clinic's campus in Jacksonville, he wanted in. "They got to do state-of-the-art research in laboratories, and I wanted to get involved in a cancer research lab," he says.

Since 2017, the SPARK program has introduced high school students to how research is conducted in Mayo Clinic laboratories. Many of these labs are led by Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center researchers. Educating, training and mentoring the next generation of cancer researchers is part of the Cancer Center's mission.

Li applied and was accepted into the 2022 program and began his research journey over the summer.

Modeling the rigors of a research career

SPARK stands for Science Program for the Advancement of Research and accepts applications from rising juniors and seniors each fall. Applicants must have an unweighted 3.5 GPA and a letter of recommendation from a science teacher.

"We have a very selective process," says John Copland III, Ph.D., a cancer biologist who started SPARK to connect the community with research at Mayo Clinic. As part of the application process, students also must identify a specific scientific problem they hope to address. "Students read about the faculty mentors and their research. Then they pick a lab and write an abstract posing a scientific question related to that research,” he says.

Read the rest of the article on the Discovery's Edge blog.


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