Igniting the interest of young cancer researchers

"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.

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.

"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.

Every year, several SPARK students pose questions about cancer research. In fact, of the 31 faculty mentors who host SPARK students in their labs, 21 are involved in cancer research, studying cancer biology, immuno-oncology, chemotherapy resistance, novel therapeutics, and cancers of the brain, breast, colon, lung, pancreas, ovaries, thyroid, liver and biliary tract.

Other students choose projects studying neuroscience, cardiovascular disease, aging, space medicine, antibodies and drug development — and even have achieved impressive standings in science fairs.

Stabilizing cells to increase cancer patients' long-term survival

Li signed on for the summer in the lab of Panagiotis Anastasiadis, Ph.D., a cancer biologist whose research team studies molecules that help cells stick to one another, a process that goes awry in cancer cells. Losing the ability to adhere to adjacent neighbors, cancer cells become disorganized, change shape, and become more migratory and invasive. Dr. Anastasiadis's team aims to understand the molecular changes related to cell-to-cell adhesion and develop treatments that will stabilize them, with the goal of increasing long-term survival of patients.

For his project, Li looked closely at two proteins, known as p120 and PLEKHA7, that interact with each other and modulate the protein involved in cell adhesion. "It opened my eyes to what it's like to do research in a professional field," he says. "The things we do in high school science labs are distilled-down basic concepts. In the research lab, there are so many more moving parts — it's more about being detail-oriented and planning. I learned a lot."

SPARK scholars commit to at least 20 hours in the lab weekly during the summer. "They have a daily lab adviser who teaches them three or four experimental procedures, and then they're performing research in the lab," says Pamela Velasco, SPARK coordinator. Students remain connected with the program for a year through required participation in oral presentations, the Mayo Clinic SPARK Mini Science Fair, and regional, state and international science fairs.  

Li got feedback from Mayo researchers when he presented his project, "Investigating the Proteomic Factors for Co-localization of p120 Catenin and PLEKHA7 to the Adherens Junctions,” at the SPARK Mini Science Fair in December. He went on to win first place in the Biochemistry Section of the Northeast Florida Regional Science and Engineering Fair in February 2023, qualifying him to compete at the State Science and Engineering Fair of Florida in April 2023.

William Li presented his research at the 2022 Mayo Clinic SPARK Mini Science Fair.

Fueled by mentorship

SPARK students' curiosity can motivate and energize mentors at all stages of their careers. "I volunteer with SPARK to inspire students to build their scientific thinking and understand what a career in science might look like," says hematology/oncology post-doctoral fellow Nathaniel Wiest, M.D., Ph.D. "I enjoy helping them grow in their self-confidence."

Lisa Cooper, a graduate student at Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, provided Li daily guidance as a research adviser in Dr. Anastasiadis' cancer biology lab. Her Ph.D. research project studies the p120 protein and how it conducts "cross-talk" with other molecules involved in cell adhesion. "Will quickly learned how much time goes into creating tools and optimizing protocols to achieve reliable results — before you can start asking questions," she says. "Trial and failure are such a large part of research. It's difficult to appreciate that until you get firsthand experience. Gaining that understanding before college puts students like Will ahead of their peers. If they stay on the research track, it will make them more resilient scientists."

Li feels SPARK took him behind the scenes in research and set him on the path he imagined for his career. "This program changes everything," says Li. "Getting in-person experience and familiarity with reading papers, talking to researchers, and understanding how labs work and the nitty gritty aspects behind research projects — SPARK gives you the edge you need to stand out as a possible applicant for labs and internships. And for my purpose of wanting to be a researcher and a physician, I think it's a great head start."

—Nicole Brudos Ferrara