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U of M Honors Student Melanie Sparks Earns Prestigious Goldwater Scholarship

For release: April 12, 2012
For press information, contact Gabrielle Maxey, 901/678-2843

Melanie Sparks
Melanie Sparks

University of Memphis student Melanie Sparks was named a recipient of the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, a prestigious national award given to students who intend to pursue research-oriented careers in science, mathematics, or engineering. The scholarship will provide up to $7,500 for her final year of undergraduate study.

A junior majoring in chemistry and a member of the Helen Hardin Honors Program, Sparks is one of 282 recipients chosen from a field of 1,123 students nominated by their universities.

Sparks has conducted research since her freshman year with Dr. Yongmei Wang, professor of chemistry, doing computational modeling on ribosomal proteins. She was recruited for the research team after standing out in her general chemistry classes. “I attribute her excellence in research to her strong self-motivation,” Wang said, noting that Sparks spent additional time outside class searching for online tutorials for the new software and operating system she was learning. “Her writing reflects her deep understanding of the subject. It will be a delight to see how she matures into an independent scientist in the future.”

As a sophomore, Sparks also began doing research with Dr. Daniel Baker on experimental expression and isolation of the sphingosine kinase 1 enzyme. “Once we are comfortable with how the enzyme functions, we will ramp up rational drug design to block enzyme activity, which has been shown to be critical in cancer and inflammatory diseases,” said Baker, assistant professor of chemistry who also taught Sparks in a bio-organic chemistry course.  “Melanie has an inquiring mind and an admirable work ethic. She seamlessly balances coursework with these two projects without either one dominating the other. She is a gem of an undergraduate student and researcher.”

Sparks’ productivity and “big picture” understanding of her research and its significance set her apart from a typical undergraduate student, said Dr. Abby Parrill, professor and chair of the U of M chemistry department. “Melanie earned a 3.81 semester average with a 19-hour course load while making substantial contributions to two research projects and giving presentations on both projects at regional and national meetings of the American Chemical Society. If we could clone Melanie Sparks, my imagination is not large enough to envision all the improvements the world would see.”

 Sparks recently presented her work at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research in Ogden, Utah, and at the “Posters at the Capitol” event in Nashville.

The daughter of Lynda and Wayne Sparks of Collierville, Melanie is a 2009 graduate of Collierville High School. 

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