SPARC at Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center brings IMPACT principles and expertise to undergraduates

On Wednesday nights this past July you would have found 10 IMPACT alumni—William Chen, Rob Knoerl, Khansa Sidahmed, Pere Dosta Pons, Nic Schwarz, Latrice Landry, Amanda Bolgioni-Smith, Filiz Yetisir, Collette Ncube and Dennis Jones—at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. This wasn’t the typical IMPACT program: instead of working with PhD trainees and postdoctoral researchers on why their research matters, these IMPACT alumni were working with undergraduate students as part of the Summer Program to Advance Research Careers (SPARC).

The 2019 SPARC class and the IMPACT mentors

SPARC is a 12-week intensive research experience for 30 undergraduates in their first or second year, involving them in research projects focused on emerging technologies in cancer and cancer disparities. Undergraduate students participating in this program were from UMass Boston and its top feeder community colleges including Bunker Hill, Roxbury, and Mass Bay, and were from groups underrepresented in the sciences. SPARC was born from a grant written by the Research Education Core of the UMass Boston Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center U54 Partnership.

You may be wondering, how did the IMPACT program become part of this wonderful SPARC initiative? Diedra Wrighting, Research Education Core Manager, become aware of the IMPACT program through an IMPACT recruiting event in the spring of 2018, when a peer mentor, Amanda Bolgioni-Smith, gave an IMPACT statement workshop at UMass Boston. Seeing how the IMPACT program worked to heighten potential of ongoing projects, Diedra envisioned this type of program being adapted to work for the undergraduate students in SPARC to help them think more deeply and critically about the research they were doing and owning their research. In the summer of 2018, Deborah Burstein, Co-Director of the IMPACT Program, and Diedra Wrighting planned the summer intensive IMPACT curriculum together for the SPARC program. After its first year, the program made improvements for summer 2019, including inviting IMPACT alumni (termed ‘coaches’) to demonstrate their five-minute IMPACT presentations and coach with the SPARC scholars on defining their contributions to the research projects, and on presenting their work in a final presentation to the SPARC cohort and guests at the end of the program.

Using the principles that the IMPACT program developed, SPARC scholars refined how they thought about and engaged with their summer science projects at UMass Boston and one of the member institutions of Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center. As an added bonus, these students also got to network with scientists from the IMPACT program. Since many of the SPARC students don’t have science research experience, one of the program’s goals is to build their interest in science education and careers.

SPARC was a great experience not only for the undergraduates in the program but also for the IMPACT coaches. The coaches learned to understand where in the scientific process undergraduates are and how to help them grow as emerging scientists. The cooperation between SPARC and IMPACT demonstrated how discussing research with a broad scientific audience can be used as a method to improve undergraduate researcher’s grasp of technical and content knowledge in terms of what they did in their research and why it was important.