Sparking Change: UK Undergrad Program for Health Equity Research Expands to KSU

Top row: Princess Major Agbozo, Riya Patel and Meron Lemma. Bottom row: Sai Yalla, Jerron Thomas and Michael McLeod.
Top row: Princess Major Agbozo, Riya Patel and Meron Lemma. Bottom row: Sai Yalla, Jerron Thomas and Michael McLeod.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Feb. 15, 2022) Now in its third year, the University of Kentucky’s SPARK (Students Participating as Ambassadors for Research in Kentucky) Program gives an introduction to health equity research to students from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in research. And there’s something extra special about its newest cohort of participants — it includes students not only from UK but also from Kentucky State University (KSU).

“From our first two cohorts, we had proof of concept and strong feedback on what was successful or not. We felt it was a good time to grow,” said SPARK Director Nancy Schoenberg, Ph.D., who also directs UK’s Center for Health Equity Transformation and serves as an associate director for the Center for Clinical and Translational Science. “We need diversity in all respects; partnering with another university broadens the experience for participants from each school.”

This new SPARK partnership is perhaps a natural one: UK and Kentucky State University are the Commonwealth’s two land-grant institutions, and the latter is a historically Black college/university.

“Undergraduate research is valued in many of our degree programs here at KSU,” said Suzette Polson, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry and the SPARK liaison at her institution. “However, we are a small institution and our research is concentrated in agriculture and aquaculture, with some in nutrition. Many biology and chemistry majors have research and career interests in the healthcare field, and the SPARK program is a great way for those students to pursue research opportunities more in alignment with their interests.”

Students in the program, known as SPARKlers, often participate in the program as early as their first year of college, acquiring critical background on health equity research. With instruction and mentorship from UK experts and community partners, they learn to how design and implement a health equity research project and then actually conduct the project in their home communities. SPARKlers get training across the spectrum of research conduct, from writing a grant application to submitting an application to the Institutional Research Board, to managing a budget, analyzing data and presenting their findings.

SPARKlers receive a generous stipend for their summer research work, in addition to funding for their research itself. While hands-on experience and building a CV is important for future academic and employment prospects, the SPARK directors are aware that most students—especially those from less advantaged backgrounds — can't afford to skip a summer of earning a wage.

Building a Legacy

So far, the program seems to be having an impact. From the inaugural 2019 cohort of three SPARKlers, one now works as a clinical research fellow in the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, which they attribute to their experience with SPARK. They presented the findings of their SPARK research project at the annual American Public Health Association conference October 2021 and plan to pursue doctoral studies in clinical psychology.

Another alum is now a student in the masters of health administration program in the UK College of Public Health and works as a clinical research associate in the UK Markey Cancer Center Clinical Research Office; the poster on their SPARK project tied for first place in the poster competition at the Appalachian Research Days in 2019.

And the third graduate from the first SPARK cohort recently completed an international service project focused on maternal and child health and is applying for admission to medical school. They were also an inaugural member of the NEURO Scholars Fellowship during their time in the SPARK program.

The three SPARKlers in the second cohort (2020) will graduate from UK this May, and two are preparing to attend graduate school. One of these two students pursued additional independent research and completed an undergraduate honors thesis in psychology; the other went on to secure an additional research position at UK focused on prostate cancer.

The 2021 SPARK Cohort

Michael McLeod is among the newest SPARKlers and in his junior year at KSU. He’s wanted to become a doctor since witnessing his grandfather’s experience with bone cancer. McLeod observed dismissive behavior from the doctors treating his loved one, who passed away prematurely.

“I don’t want this kind of situation to happen to others, and if I can help even one or two people, it would be worth it,” he said.

He applied to KSU’s inaugural SPARK cohort because he wanted to obtain a better understanding of how to undertake health equity research and have the full research experience.

“I’m thinking of doing an M.D./Ph.D. and the SPARK program will help me determine now, instead of much later, if research is a good fit for me or not,” he said.

Similar to McLeod, new SPARKler Princess Magor Agbozo became interested in health equity because of personal experience. A sophomore in UK’s College of Public Health, she’s originally from Ghana, where she often accompanied a family member on frequent medical visits. Then Agbozo spent her high school years living in Qatar and was struck by the differences in the two country’s health systems. Resulting in her becoming keenly interested in global health and getting at the roots of health equity problems.

“I want to find out why these differences exist, how other countries are taking care of their underserved groups, how they’re bridging gaps in access — I want to get behind the scenes,” she said.

She was also drawn to SPARK because she wanted to get a head start in learning how to conduct research, skills she knows she’ll need while pursuing her goal of a medical degree and a master's of public health.

“We’re learning about ethics in research, different types of studies, how to write a grant — I know all these things will be helpful for my future,” she said. 

Also selected for the 2021 SPARK cohort are:  Meron Lemma (UK), Riya Patel (UK), Jerron Thomas (KSU) and Sairakshitha "Sai" Yalla (UK). Learn more about all the 2021 SPARKlers, including where they’re from and what they’re interested in, here.

Beyond doubling the size of the cohort from three to six and adding a partner university, the SPARK program is growing behind the scenes, too. There is more personnel, and from a variety of backgrounds — not just faculty but also postdocs, graduate students in UK’s M.D./Ph.D. program, guest speakers and an external advisory committee.

“We’ve expanded the human subjects protection training, added a book group led by an M.D./Ph.D. student and launched a training called Health Equity 101 which is led by Ariel Arthur, who has a rigorous background on the topic,” Schoenberg said.

And since students from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in academics can easily feel left out at predominately white institutions, sessions focused on belonging and connection have been added to the program.

None of this, Schoenberg and Arthur say, would be possible without the participation of numerous and talented individuals including Madeline Dunfee, M.D./Ph.D. candidate, graduate research assistant for SPARK logistics and CITI training; Anna Hansen, M.D./Ph.D. candidate, SPARK book club coordinator; Jessica Thompson, Markey Cancer Center postdoctoral fellow and leader of the SPARK Research 101 didactic course; Brittany Rice, NCI T32 postdoctoral fellow and SPARK enrichment workshop leader; Joel Thompson, Ph.D., director of research development for the Center for Clinical and Translational Science; and Elizabeth Rhodus, assistant professor of behavioral science and leader of SPARK’s Ethics 101 course.

The SPARK program is a collaboration of the UK Center for Health Equity Transformation (CHET) and the Center for Clinical and Translational Science, with additional support from UK’s cardiovascular disease research priority area and Aetna Foundation.

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.