UK Undergraduate Research Program Sparks Student Success

2020 SPARK student researchers Hope Makumbi, Alexis James and Roberto Obregon Garcia. Pete Comparoni | UK Photo.
2020 SPARK student researcher Alexis James. Pete Comparoni | UK Photo.
2020 SPARK student researcher Hope Makumbi. Pete Comparoni | UK Photo.
2020 SPARK student researcher Roberto Obregon Garcia. Pete Comparoni | UK Photo.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Jan. 27, 2021) – Each year, the University of Kentucky’s Students Participating as Ambassadors for Research in Kentucky (SPARK) gives a select group of undergraduates from diverse backgrounds a unique, hands-on research opportunity to prepare them for graduate study in health-related fields.

While the COVID-19 pandemic provided new obstacles for SPARK’s 2020 cohort, the three students – Alexis James, Hope Makumbi and Roberto Obregon Garcia – say the challenges brought opportunities to focus on their research, particularly with communication.

SPARK, which was launched last year by UK’s Center for Health Equity Transformation (CHET) and Center for Clinical and Translational Sciences (CCTS), is a year-long community-engaged program for undergraduates focused on research related to health equity.

Typically, SPARK students spend a summer back in their communities conducting research. Then, for the rest of the academic year, they are matched with UK faculty mentors who help them publish and present their findings.

The 2020 cohort had to make some changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, says Jerod Stapleton, CHET executive committee member and associate professor of Public Health who organizes SPARK’s training and recruitment.

The program shifted gears and instead this year’s class was connected with mentors that had ongoing health equity research already taking place, Stapleton says.

Prior to that, Stapleton led a 10-week intensive summer training course for the students to cover basic research skills.

“The course not only focused on data collection, but also on analyzing data, presenting results, and writing about the implications of findings to create publishable reports,” Stapleton said. “What do you do with the data once you have it and how do you make it meaningful? Because research is only meaningful if it can be communicated.”

In addition to research skills, CHET manager Ariel Arthur and UK MD/PhD student Madeline Dunfee led classroom and book club discussions to broaden students’ understanding of health equity and research ethics.  

The students then worked with their faculty sponsors, Stapleton, and UK MD/PhD student Anna Hansen to execute the projects with the goal to create work that can be published.

Later this semester, James, Makumbi and Obregon Garcia will present their research projects at the CCTS Spring Conference.

SPARK is open to undergraduates from all majors at UK. Learn more about the program at

Meet the 2020 SPARK cohort:


Alexis James

Majoring in Human Health Sciences, James intends to go to medical school and says the SPARK program piqued her interest as she wanted a diverse undergraduate research experience. Working with faculty sponsor Danelle Stevens-Watkins in the College of Education, James’ project focuses on mental health in Black men who are incarcerated in Kentucky.


Hope Makumbi

Makumbi, a neuroscience major bound for medical school, says her plans to go to Uganda for a summer internship focused on women’s health changed directions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. SPARK ended up being the perfect opportunity because it was a different type of research experience where she was still able to focus on women’s health issues, Makumbi says.

Makumbi’s SPARK focus is on maternal healthcare, specifically how a mother’s pre-pregnancy level of education is related to concerns about her child's early development.


Roberto Obregon Garcia

Psychology major Obregon Garcia was matched with Rafael E. Pérez-Figueroa in the College of Public Health. His study examines whether co-using other drugs determines the likelihood of fatal opioid overdoses among a primarily Latinx male population experiencing homelessness.

Originally from Mexico, Obregon Garcia says one of the things that attracted him to SPARK was the focus on multicultural perspectives in his research not only for this project, but in the future. 



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