New internship program ignites a SPARK

| Written by Miles Martin
SPARK interns group standing in front of Prebys center

For the first time, Sanford Burnham Prebys hosted high school interns from the SPARK program, an initiative by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) that provides biomedical research opportunities for underrepresented groups throughout California. The SPARK interns each completed a six-week project under the supervision of a faculty mentor and presented their results to scientists at the Institute as well as at CIRM’s annual SPARK conference. 

“Our SPARK program selects diverse students from San Diego and Imperial Valley, and we were proud to have these students at Sanford Burnham Prebys as the inaugural class,” says Program Director Paula Checchi, Ph.D. Checchi is an administrator in the Office of Education, Training and International Services at Sanford Burnham Prebys. She developed the educational components of the program and also organized several community outreach events for interns.

Ameera Ali presenting her research
SPARK intern Ameera Ali presents her research

SPARK stands for Summer Program to Accelerate Regenerative Medicine Knowledge, and students worked in labs learning the hands-on techniques that scientists use to study degenerative diseases—with the ultimate goal of finding new approaches to treat the millions of people affected by these conditions.

“I had no idea that people even worked on zebrafish in labs,” said SPARK intern Ameera Ali, who used zebrafish as a model to study heart disease in the lab of Karen Ocorr, Ph.D. “Traditionally in science you only hear about lab mice and lab rats, but zebrafish are so much more interesting. I can’t wait to work with them again.” 

For intern Saranya Anandakumar, who studied in the lab of Victoria Blaho, Ph.D., the best moment was a simple one. She says, “My favorite part of the internship was getting to see human blood under the microscope! Seeing all the different types of cells was the coolest thing ever.”

Four interns from high schools in Imperial Valley had the added experience of living away from home for the first time. Samantha Alvarez, who completed her internship in the lab of Brooke Emerling, Ph.D., stayed with a family in the San Diego area.

“I loved it,” says Alvarez. “I got a chance to take a peek at what it’s going to be like in my adult life once I graduate and I’m independent.”

At Sanford Burnham Prebys, the internship program culminated in a final celebration where students had the chance to share the results of their work and what they’ve learned from their time at the Institute. The students then traveled to Northern California August 2–3 for CIRM’s annual SPARK conference, where they presented their work and networked with interns from other Institutions. 

“My biggest takeaway was all the cultural diversity on campus and in the lab,” says Alvarez. “One of my mentors is from Barcelona, and it was so interesting to compare cultures and experiences. Everybody was so nice and welcoming. It was great.”

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