For high school students, the transition from predictable lab work in the classroom to the more abstract and unpredictable outcomes of real-world research in a professional lab is significant. Sparks builds a strong foundation in both research and plant science, helping them gain a clearer understanding of the subjects they want to study in college and beyond.
“This is for them to find their own answers and understand that we don’t necessarily know the outcome,” Sparks said. “If we did that, we wouldn’t necessarily be doing the experiment.”
Retired after a successful career in plant breeding, Ferriss is enthusiastic about Sparks Lab’s internship program, which gives aspiring scientists an early, hands-on look at plant science. That’s Sparks.
“It is indescribable, this post and how [Ferriss] changed the lives of these students and opened their minds to a new opportunity and new careers that they had not considered before starting this internship,” said Sparks.
Ferriss said he firmly believes internships are key to opening students’ minds and building their networks. Thanks to his contributions, the laboratory experience sparked Danthuluri and Kim’s interest in plant science, a discipline vital to feeding the world and protecting the planet.
“When we look at food production today, we worry about how climate change will affect it,” Ferriss said. “There needs to be more research and development in food production if we are to sustain our lives in the future.”
Immerse yourself in research
The aspiring scientists addressed botanical research questions throughout the experience.
Danthuluri studied the effect of planting density on corn flowering and examined how much corn could be successfully grown in a single plot. He concluded that competition elicits a shade response, meaning that when corn is grown close together, plants shade each other. Shade encourages each plant to compete for sunlight so it will grow just as vigorously as those that are already accessing the most sun.
This research question was one that Danthuluri, now a high school senior with an interest in microbiology and molecular biology, could only tackle with the resources of a professional laboratory.
“They had much bigger and more advanced technology and facilities, so that really prepared me for my future,” he said. “It really showed me the value of communicating and collaborating with other people.
Kim added, “Because this is my first independent research project, I didn’t realize how much time would need to be invested in the experiment, so I feel like I learned a lot from it.”
Ferriss fondly remembers traveling with Teel to a research station in Millsboro – visiting farms, doing research, and having wonderful conversations about science. Fifty years later, Sparks filled the same role as Teel, providing the mentorship that will give Newark residents Danthuluri and Kim the knowledge and confidence they need to prepare for meaningful scientific careers.
New students in the lab
After reading how meaningful the internship experience was for Danthuluri and Kim, Ferriss stepped in again to sponsor two new students – Therese Kim and Taran Kermani. As a senior at the Charter School of Wilmington, Kermani is interested in a career in biological research. Kim, a junior at Newark Charter High School, is interested in biology and environmental science.
Led by Sparks and UD scientist Teclemariam Weldekidan, the pair spent the summer in the outdoor field lab studying the effects of artificial selection on tropical corn adaptation. Among other things, the students learned the basics of plant breeding by performing cross-pollination and collecting agronomic data.
“It showed me the ignored and neglected but urgent concern of how to feed the rapidly growing world population despite declining land area and limited resources, an increase
problem I had never thought of before,” Kim said. “It taught me that the way to save the world is through breeding plants and increasing crop yields, generation after generation.”