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

By Mallory Profeta

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. Among the students selected are three majors in the College of Arts & Sciences. 

“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,  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.”

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.

The A&S students are: 

Meron Lemma

Major: Environmental Sustainability Studies and Public Health
Year: Junior

Lemma is a junior in the College of Public Health and the College of Arts and Sciences, double majoring in Public Health and Environmental Sustainability Studies. After graduating, she plans to pursue a master’s degree in Global Health. She hopes to work on projects that apply principles from her main areas of interest: global health and environmental sustainability. She believes that having an interdisciplinary background will prepare her to best serve her community by implementing strategies to achieve health equity and environmental justice.

Riya Patel

Major: Biology and Neuroscience

Year: Freshman

Patel is freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences where she is double majoring in Biology and Neuroscience. She is interested in a career in the medical field, specifically in the neurosurgery specialty; however, she is also interested in being a Primary Care Physician. Having a CNA Certification and volunteer experience at hospitals has allowed her to strengthen her wish to further a medical career.

Sairakshitha "Sai" Yalla

Major: Biology and Mathematics
Year: Sophomore

Sairakshitha Yalla is a first-generation immigrant from India who graduated from the MSTC program at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Lexington, Kentucky. Sai aspires to be a physician-scientist who translates fundamental research into clinical interventions that drive effective and impactful healthcare outcomes. In her spare time, she enjoys reading comics, lifting weights, running after her nieces and mentoring high-schoolers.