University of Memphis Magazine
Sparks of Wisdom
Fall 12 Features



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A New Tiger in Town
A Fresh Start
Lambuth, One Year Later
Bouncing Back
Sparks of Wisdom


Photos Capture Glamorous Career
Natural Woman Turned Healer
Writer’s Roots of Success Run Deep


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Sparks of Wisdom

One professor says if this University of Memphis student could be cloned, the world would be a better place.

By Gabrielle Maxey

Even among a classroom full of honors students, Melanie Sparks stood out. "She was about as close to perfect in my Honors General Chemistry I and II classes as I’ve ever had," recalls Dr. Richard Petersen, associate professor of chemistry at the University of Memphis. So close, in fact, that she finished in the 99th percentile on the national standardized General Chemistry final exam.

Sparks’ intuitive questions and mastery of concepts caught the attention of other professors as well. At a start-of-semester ice cream social, chemistry professor Dr. Yongmei Wang invited Sparks to join her research team. She has worked with the Wang Group since her freshman year, doing computational modeling on ribosomal proteins. By studying the crystal structure, "We can have better means to come up with antibodies that differentiate between bacterial and human ribosomes," Sparks says, eventually leading to development of new drugs.

With her sights set on a PhD, chemistry major Melanie Sparks won the highly coveted Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship this spring.
With her sights set on a PhD, chemistry major Melanie Sparks won the highly coveted Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship this spring.

I attribute her excellence in research to her strong self-motivation," Wang says, 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," says Baker, assistant professor of chemistry who also taught Sparks in a bioorganic chemistry course. "Melanie has an inquiring mind and an admirable work ethic. She seamlessly balances coursework with these two projects without any one dominating the other. She is a gem of an undergraduate student and researcher."

It is extremely rare for a chemistry student to work on two research teams. Sparks’ productivity and "big picture" understanding of her research and its significance set her apart from a typical undergraduate student, says Dr. Abby Parrill, professor and chair of chemistry. "Melanie maintained an excellent 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 (ACS). If we could clone Melanie Sparks, my imagination is not large enough to envision all the improvements the world would see."

The Collierville resident enjoys the collaborative nature of research. "Being immersed in research is a great experience. It’s challenging but rewarding," Sparks says. "We’re like a big family."

This spring Sparks was named a recipient of the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, a prestigious national award given to students who plan to pursue research-oriented careers in science, mathematics or engineering. The scholarship is worth up to $7,500 for her final year of undergraduate study. Sparks received an honorable mention for the Goldwater award in 2011. A junior chemistry major and member of the Helen Hardin Honors Program, she is one of 282 recipients chosen from a field of 1,123 students nominated by their universities.

Sparks’ research also has taken her on the road. She has presented her work at such venues as the National Conference on Undergraduate Research in Ogden, Utah, and at the Posters at the Capitol event in Nashville.

So how does an honors student with an ultra-demanding academic and research schedule unwind after long hours in the lab? For Sparks, it’s taekwondo. She earned a red belt in the Korean traditional martial art while attending Collierville High School and picked it back up during her junior year of college. "It’s my outlet, a way to get my energy out," she says. "I go to Midtown Taekwondo. The people there are so nice. It’s challenging, but still fun."

Sparks plans to pursue a PhD in chemistry, a journey that will likely take her out of Tennessee.

"Melanie is very driven," Baker says. "Recently I asked her what her current GPA was. She responded ‘3.95’ in an almost embarrassed way. Her less than 4.0 resulted from taking 19 credits while working on two separate research projects. When I first met Melanie she told me she wanted to go to pharmacy school. One of my proudest accomplishments has been to help convince her she can and should go to graduate school in chemistry and make her own mark as a researcher."

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