Motivated by her grandfather’s suffering with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, Alexandria Sparks developed a deep-seated desire to help others who were undergoing severe illnesses.
ALS attacks the nervous system and victims of this disease lose all motor skills beginning with the ability to walk, progressing to the loss of the ability to speak and the eventual loss of the ability to breathe. Watching her grandfather struggle was painful for Sparks.
“As I grew older, I thought to myself, ‘What if I could solve this problem and find a cure for this illness and many others as well?’” said Sparks. This notion inspired her education and career path in research. Sparks’ grandfather never lost faith and continued motivating her even through his suffering. The memory of her grandfather stayed with her as she completed her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Georgia State University. “His legacy and encouragement influenced me both educationally and personally and have fueled the fire I have inside to make my dreams come true,” said Sparks.
Now, Sparks is a current fellow of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Division of Laboratory Sciences (DLS) Research Participation Program, Organic Analytical Toxicology (OAT) branch. The CDC Research Participation Programs are educational and training programs designed to provide students, recent graduates, and university faculty opportunities to participate in project-specific CDC research, current public health research and developmental activities.
Throughout the course of her fellowship, Sparks has learned new skills, gained valuable experience, and developed professionally. Under the guidance of her mentor Dr. Nayana Jayatilaka, Sparks has participated in important research projects on urine metabolites of flame retardants, organophosphate pesticides, neonicotinoids, and DEET.
“My experience here at the CDC has been very inspiring and rewarding,” said Sparks. She has enjoyed applying the knowledge she has learned through her university courses to the studies of her team’s research. She feels more confident in her abilities as a chemist and a young professional in the workplace. “Every day is a new learning experience, whether inside or outside the lab. I truly believe the research is meaningful and helpful in making the world safer,” Sparks shared.
For her outstanding contribution to the team, Sparks was recently nominated by the branch leadership for an “Unsung Hero” award. The award, which was presented to her at the 2022 ORISE Fellows Recognition event, recognizes those whose actions are significant, but perhaps not highly visible; someone “behind the scenes” whose actions contributed to a positive team environment or better workplace.
Sparks recommends CDC research program to anyone interested in research and method development. “The best advice I could give to someone interest in participating in the program is for them to be prepared to be challenged but know that you are backed by a team of people who wish to help you succeed,” she shared.
Sparks also has recently applied for a graduate program to obtain her master’s in analytical chemistry. Her future career goal is to become a senior lab analyst conducting analytical chemistry research at the CDC. Achieving her master’s degree will assist her in advancing to senior level positions within her chosen field. “I will be very satisfied in doing any work that improves the quality of life of all people,” she said.
The program is managed by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) under an agreement between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). ORISE focuses on scientific initiatives including educating the next generation of scientists and is managed for DOE by ORAU.