Image showing a Mayo Clinic SPARK Research Mentorship Program scholar with researchers.

SPARK scholar Timothy Kellett (2017), a Florida State University student, joined Mayo Clinic as a technician and employee. During the summer of 2019, Tim worked in the same research laboratory where he trained as a SPARK scholar under the mentorship of Aneel Paulus, M.D., M.S., and Alak Manna, Ph.D. Left to right: John A. Copland III, Ph.D., SPARK faculty director; Sharon R. Collins, former SPARK program director; Tim; Dr. Manna; and Dr. Paulus.

Our Research Mentors

The ultimate aim of SPARK's distinctive mentor-based model is to nurture enthusiasm for research among talented high schoolers. Physician-scientists who act as mentors and role models are dedicated to ensuring that SPARK student scholars have hands-on experience in their research labs investigating a range of topics, including novel therapeutic targets, cancer metastasis, nanomedicine, neuroscience, immunology and much more.

Laboratories and scientists who participate in the SPARK Research Mentorship Program at Mayo Clinic's campus in Florida are:

Panagiotis (Panos) Z. Anastasiadis, Ph.D.

In his Cell Adhesion and Metastasis Laboratory, Dr. Anastasiadis studies cancer biology, with an ultimate goal of developing new therapies that can control the progression and spread of tumors. Read more about Dr. Anastasiadis.

Veronique Belzil, Ph.D., M.S.

Dr. Belzil works on developing individualized approaches to treating amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), frontotemporal dementia (FTD) and other related neurodegenerative diseases. Her Translational and Integrative Omics for Neurodegeneration Laboratory aims to discover and characterize genetic, epigenetic and transcriptional changes driving neuronal death to better understand the complex etiology, heterogeneous clinical presentation, comorbid conditions and multifaceted environmental interaction observed in patients with neurodegenerative diseases.

Dr. Belzil's research group uses human biospecimens and integrative multiomic approaches to systematically identify disease-specific variants, elucidate their underlying mechanisms of action, shed light on distinct circuitry, and ultimately uncover static and dynamic biomarkers and putative therapeutic targets. Her laboratory also works on developing therapeutic approaches using gene delivery, gene silencing, gene editing and RNA interference methods in patient-derived cell lines. Read more about Dr. Belzil.

Santanu Bhattacharya, Ph.D.

Dr. Bhattacharya has multidisciplinary training and research expertise in nanotechnology, biophysics and cancer biology. Nanotechnology and the use of nanostructures have enormous promise in biomedical applications. The interests and investments in the application of nanotechnology in medicine are growing and progressing at a rapid pace, bringing a new field of research — nanomedicine. Read more about Dr. Bhattacharya.

Thomas Caulfield, Ph.D.

Dr. Caulfield has a research background in biochemistry, medicinal chemistry, biophysics, computational modeling and in silico drug studies. His long-term focus is on areas related to protein modeling and new drugs, such as structural studies of biomolecular targets, assessment of druggability, drug discovery (hit to lead through optimization) and de novo design.

Research in Dr. Caulfield's Drug Discovery, Design and Optimization for Novel Therapeutics Laboratory is focused on investigating structure-function behavior of neurological disease targets, cancer biology targets and other metabolic targets using algorithmic strategies to study dynamics behaviors, protein-protein interactions and other complexes. Read more about Dr. Caulfield.

Casey N. Cook, Ph.D.

Dr. Cook leads the Comparative Pathogenesis of Alzheimer's Disease and Related Disorders Laboratory, which focuses its research on identifying common pathological mechanisms across a spectrum of disorders. In particular, the overall goal of the laboratory is to provide new insight into pathogenic mechanisms of Alzheimer's disease (AD) and related disorders and elucidate novel therapeutic strategies to treat them. To achieve these goals, the lab uses cell and animal models, as well as human biofluids and postmortem tissue samples. Focus areas include evaluating mechanisms of neurodegeneration in tauopathy, pathogenic mechanisms in TDP-43 proteinopathy and investigating white matter abnormalities in neurodegeneration. Read more about Dr. Cook.

John A. Copland III, Ph.D.

Dr. Copland leads the Cancer Biology and Translational Research Laboratory at Mayo Clinic's campus in Florida. Research in the lab is aimed at better understanding the mechanisms and pathways of carcinogenesis and tumor progression to develop novel, synergistic cancer therapies. Discoveries from the Copland laboratory include RhoB, transforming growth factor receptor 3 (TBR3) and GATA3 as tumor suppressor genes in addition to FOXO3a, stearoyl CoA desaturase 1 (SCD1), neuronal pentraxin 2 (NPTX2) and others as novel oncogenes. Read more about Dr. Copland.

Nilufer Ertekin-Taner, M.D., Ph.D.

In her Genetics of Alzheimer's Disease and Endophenotypes Laboratory, Dr. Ertekin-Taner works to elucidate the complex genetics of Alzheimer's disease through discovery and characterization of genetic factors that influence risk and modulate biological quantitative phenotypes (endophenotypes), such as gene expression levels and cognition. Read more about Dr. Ertekin-Taner.

DeLisa Fairweather, Ph.D.; Katelyn A. Bruno, Ph.D.

In her Translational Cardiovascular Disease Research Laboratory, Dr. Fairweather, in collaboration with Dr. Bruno, studies the identification of biomarkers that can be used as diagnostic and therapeutic targets for cardiovascular and autoimmune diseases. Read more about Dr. Fairweather and Dr. Bruno.

Latonya J. Hickson, M.D.

The research of Dr. Hickson focuses on the study of patient-important outcomes such as hospitalizations, death, kidney function recovery and kidney failure in patients with advanced chronic kidney disease and hypertension. Dr. Hickson's research mission is to improve the lives of patients with kidney disease through innovative research. Read more about Dr. Hickson.

Baoan Ji, M.D., Ph.D.

Dr. Ji's work focuses on pancreatic diseases and conditions. In particular, he studies novel therapeutic and prevention strategies for pancreatic inflammation and cancer, including Ras signaling and Aurora kinase A. Read more about Dr. Ji.

Verline Justilien, Ph.D.

Dr. Justilien is interested in the genetics, biochemistry and cell biology of lung cancer. She is particularly interested in identifying the genetic and epigenetic alterations and their associated molecular signaling mechanisms that occur in lung cancer cells of origin and drive tumor initiation, progression, maintenance, metastasis and chemoresistance. She aims to translate this knowledge into better therapeutic strategies for lung cancer. Dr. Justilien's studies use a combination of cell-based in vitro and in vivo tumor models, molecular and cell biology, genomic, proteomic, and bioinformatics approaches. Read more about Dr. Justilien.

Takahisa Kanekiyo, M.D., Ph.D. and James F. Meschia, M.D.

Dr. Kanekiyo and co-mentor Dr. Meschia study neurodegenerative diseases and neurovascular diseases, including aging, ischemic stroke, vascular cognitive impairment, Alzheimer's disease, and apolipoprotein E (APOE) and APOE receptors. Read more about Dr. Kanekiyo and Dr. Meschia.

Keith L. Knutson, Ph.D.

Dr. Knutson studies immunology and immunotherapy of breast cancer and ovarian cancer, with a focus on basic, translational and clinical application of vaccines for treatment and prevention. Read more about Dr. Knutson.

Pamela J. McLean, Ph.D.

Research in Dr. McLean's Neurobiology of Parkinson's Disease Laboratory focuses on understanding the cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying neurodegeneration in Parkinson's disease, dementia with Lewy bodies and related neurodegenerative disorders. In particular, her research group studies the role of alpha-synuclein, a protein that misfolds and aggregates in the brain regions that are critically involved in these diseases. Read more about Dr. McLean.

Debabrata (Dev) Mukhopadhyay, Ph.D.

In his Tumor Angiogenesis and Vascular Biology Laboratory, Dr. Mukhopadhyay investigates the role of angiogenesis-related factors in tumor formation and development of cardiovascular diseases, with a goal of improving early detection of cancer and developing better treatment options for patients with cancer or cardiovascular disease. Read more about Dr. Mukhopadhyay.

Melissa E. Murray, Ph.D.

Dr. Murray and her colleagues in Mayo Clinic's Translational Neuropathology Lab use a multidisciplinary approach that integrates neuropathology, neuroimaging and genetics to investigate neurocognitive disorders (Alzheimer's disease), parkinsonian disorders (dementia with Lewy bodies) and motor neuron disorders (Lou Gehrig's disease). Dr. Murray is specifically interested in the effect of brain aging overlaid with a neurodegenerative disorder. The lab has revealed striking differences regarding vulnerability or resilience in affected individuals, especially in the setting of Alzheimer's disease. Read more about Dr. Murray.

Folakemi T. Odedina, Ph.D.

Dr. Odedina is an internationally recognized cancer researcher and academic leader. She has led global research programs for decades, primarily funded by the National Cancer Institute and the Department of Defense. This research focuses on developing cost-effective, community-based behavioral intervention programs to address prostate cancer in Black males. Her research, education, training and community outreach activities have exclusively focused on addressing health disparities in racial and ethnic minority and underserved communities. As a behavioral scientist, she conducts behavioral research across the translational continuum to test behavioral models, to confirm who will benefit from behavioral interventions and to examine how to deliver interventions in all settings.

Dr. Odedina's research program has developed and validated multiple behavioral models that include multilevel assessment of barriers and facilitators for the uptake of interventions, tested and adapted interventions that include behavioral clinical trials, and worked closely with community health workers to implement health intervention programs in diverse community settings worldwide. She has also been a leader in training future scientists whose backgrounds are underrepresented in biomedical research. Read more about Dr. Odedina.

Tushar C. Patel, M.B., Ch.B.; Christine Mehner, M.D., Ph.D.

Space medicine: We are building miniaturized automated devices to assess human cells in outer space. Our work encompasses, cell culture, protein assessment, 3D modeling, prototyping and engineering out of plastics and metal, coding (C++, Python) of embedded systems for motor and camera control. Possible projects include learning how culture human cells and collect proteins, design 3D printable models for protein assays, and build and assemble, and test devices for future space flight missions. Read more about Dr. Patel's and Dr. Mehner's work in this area:

Leonard Petrucelli, Ph.D.

The Neurodegenerative Diseases Laboratory of Dr. Petrucelli is at the forefront of research investigating the cellular mechanisms that cause diseases characterized by abnormal protein aggregation such as Alzheimer's disease, frontotemporal dementia (FTD) and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). In expanding upon his commitment to understanding the causes of such diseases, Dr. Petrucelli is now emphasizing translational research geared toward identifying and developing therapies for treatment and prevention. Read more about Dr. Petrucelli.

Mercedes Prudencio, Ph.D.

Research in the RNA Metabolism in Neurodegenerative Disease Laboratory at Mayo Clinic, led by Mercedes Prudencio, Ph.D., is focused on understanding disease mechanisms to identify novel biomarkers and therapeutic targets for diseases characterized with TDP-43 pathology (TDP-43 proteinopathies). Toward this goal, Dr. Prudencio utilizes a variety of research tools, including human biospecimens, animal modeling, and several cell and molecular biology techniques. Read more about Dr. Prudencio.

Owen A. Ross, Ph.D.

The research interests of Mayo Clinic's Parkinson's Disease Laboratory and Stroke and Vascular Disease Laboratory, both led by Owen A. Ross, Ph.D., revolve around the genetics of aging and age-related disorders. Dr. Ross' primary research is focused on the role of genetics in familial and sporadic forms of parkinsonism and related movement disorders. Dr. Ross has played an important role in characterizing the two most important genes in Parkinson's disease, LRRK2 and SNCA. Read more about Dr. Ross.

Mark E. Sherman, M.D.; Nathaniel E. Wiest, M.D., Ph.D.

Dr. Sherman employs molecular pathology and epidemiologic study designs to evaluate the etiology, behavior and consequences of gynecological cancers, breast cancers and their precursors in diverse populations. Developing biomarkers and models to improve breast cancer risk prediction, including factors that integrate radiologic imaging, molecular histology and molecular pathology. Read more about Dr. Sherman.

Publications on DNA repair by Dr. Wiest include:

Peter Storz, Ph.D.

In his Tumor Development, Immunology and Progression Laboratory, Dr. Storz investigates the cellular signaling and cross-talk mechanisms that contribute to the tumorigenesis and aggressiveness of pancreatic cancer and invasive breast cancer. Read more about Dr. Storz.

Yongjie Zhang, Ph.D.

Dr. Zhang's research is focused on investigating disease mechanisms associated with frontotemporal dementia (FTD) and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), two fatal diseases that are pathologically and genetically related. Dr. Zhang has significant expertise in functional and molecular biology, as well as animal modeling.

Using an array of complementary tools, Dr. Zhang's Pathomechanisms of Neurodegeneration in the Frontotemporal Dementia and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Laboratory is specifically interested in investigating the pathogenic pathways by which aggregation-prone proteins (such as TDP-43, C9orf72 dipeptide repeat protein) cause cellular functional defects and neurodegeneration, resulting in novel therapeutic strategies to mitigate toxicities associated with these abnormal protein deposits. The ultimate goal of Dr. Zhang's research is to identify novel therapeutic targets and design target-specific therapies to successfully treat FTD and ALS. Read more about Dr. Zhang.