Summer program trains high school researchers, fuels real advances

July 23, 2022

When Kristi Biswas finished 10th grade, she had about as much exposure to science as most high school students her age. "Just biology, chemistry and a little bit of physics," she says.

But last summer, she made meaningful contributions to Alzheimer's disease research as a participant in the SPARK Research Mentorship Program at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. Biswas' presentation of her findings — on genetic variants associated with protein accumulation in the brain — won second place in the Biomedical and Health Sciences category of the International Science and Engineering Fair, attended by more than 1,500 students from 70 countries.

"Her results provide additional information about the genetic variants that contribute to Alzheimer's disease. They'll absolutely be the basis of further investigation and will help prioritize our future studies," says Nilüfer Ertekin-Taner, M.D., Ph.D., a neurologist and director of the Genetics of Alzheimer's Disease and Endophenotypes Laboratory at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, where Biswas had her mentorship.

SPARK — which stands for Science Program for the Advancement of Research Knowledge — introduces motivated, talented, science-minded high school students to real-world biomedical questions as they work in Mayo Clinic's world-class labs. Nearly 30 scientists at Mayo Clinic's campus in Florida serve as mentors, volunteering their lab space and time. SPARK students have subsequently pursued college majors and careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

"The students start off with little knowledge about any particular field," says John Copland III, Ph.D., faculty director for the program. "Sometimes they're nervous and even a little shy. But these are extraordinary kids — very smart and very curious."

Students apply by proposing a research experiment that aligns with a particular lab's expertise. In addition to Biswas, two other 2021 SPARK students competed in the International Science and Engineering Fair. Their research focused on drug resistance that occurs in pancreatic cancer treatment and on chimeric antigen receptor-T cell therapy for acute myeloid leukemia.

Un galardonado programa de mentores Un galardonado programa de mentores

La investigación sobre el alzhéimer de Kristi Biswas se ha llevado a cabo en el marco del programa de mentores SPARK de Mayo Clinic.

Biswas' interest in Alzheimer's disease stems from her experience with a family member who had the condition. "I definitely wanted to pursue research in that area so that in the future I might find a therapy target for Alzheimer's so no one else has to go through losing a family member in the same way," she says.

During her mentorship, Biswas learned benchwork and genome analysis techniques, as well as coding for regression analyses. She then examined 2,000 tissue samples from the Mayo Clinic Brain Bank to determine whether genetic variants previously discovered by the lab were also responsible for influencing Alzheimer's disease-related pathology.

Using R coding, Biswas determined that one genetic variant associated with brain levels of Alzheimer's disease-related proteins also was associated with disease-related features, such as the amount and location of tau and amyloid deposits. "I was so excited when I saw that association," Biswas says.

The finding will be included in an upcoming journal article, with Biswas listed as a co-author.

"I would definitely say SPARK is a life-changing experience," Biswas says. "It gives you a chance to connect with people who have the same passion for science that you do."

For more information

SPARK Research Mentorship Program. Mayo Clinic.

Genetics of Alzheimer's Disease and Endophenotypes Laboratory. Mayo Clinic.

Mayo Clinic Brain Bank. Mayo Clinic.

Refer a patient to Mayo Clinic.