ASHA introduced the Students Preparing for Academic and Research Careers (SPARC) in 2004, a mentoring program named for the spark of inspiration it was designed to provide for undergraduate and graduate students pursuing research-oriented careers. The program was one of several responses to the shortage of PhD-level scholars in communication sciences and disorders.
As a faculty member at Northeastern University in Boston, I first learned of this program in 2005 and encouraged Pamela Campellone, then a graduate student, to apply. Campellone used the SPARC award to defray participant honorarium costs associated with her thesis and to fund her travel to present at the ASHA Convention.
The SPARC program not only fostered research, but also encouraged recipients to gain experience in teaching and other scholarship activities. The successful experience of this initial SPARC recipient prompted me to encourage my students and those of my colleagues to apply for the SPARC award. I tell students that the program imposes a deadline for implementing a research plan (such as a thesis) and the award budget serves as a first iteration of grantsmanship, which is part of a career in academia. The Northeastern University Communication Analysis and Design Laboratory has been fortunate to have two additional SPARC awardees, Catherine McNab (2008) and Katherine Alexander (2009).
I believe that students do not pursue research because of a lack of exposure or a fear that they may not have the skills or perseverance to complete a doctoral degree. Other students who decide to pursue a research doctorate may not understand the nature of the degree or may lack the internal drive and passion for research. Although a research-oriented career is not for everyone, how can students come to that conclusion without prior exposure?
My own image of research was people in white coats peering through a microscope in a dank room—the experience I had during my undergraduate program in neuroscience. In my master's program in communication sciences and disorders, I learned that research could range from wet lab studies of vocal tissue to behavioral studies of spoken communication to design of novel communication aids.
McNab shared that "white coat" preconception of research; she noted that "the most valuable experience for me was being immersed in the entire scope of the research process, from just a kernel of an idea all the way to manuscript submission."
In addition to igniting the research flame in my students, the SPARC award has provided opportunities for unique collaborations between recipients. I have seen Campellone mentor other students in the lab, including Alexander. This collaboration continued during work on their theses, as Campellone's study influenced the idea behind Alexander's thesis. Both students focused on prosodic cues in dysarthria and how speaking rate manipulations might alter these cues. "This experience has taught me that research and clinical practice are tightly coupled," Alexander said.
The award also has increased recipients' confidence in their teaching skills, according to Campellone. "As a teaching assistant, I was exposed to the ‘behind-the-scenes' work involved with teaching. There is a balancing act of managing student expectations and teaching objectives."
SPARC is a unique program that facilitates the spread of the passion, knowledge, and experience of mentors for teaching, research, and scholarship. I have learned as much as I have given in this process, making it especially rewarding. My hope is that I have influenced students to one day pursue doctoral studies so that we may collaborate in the future as colleagues or as mentors to a new generation of students. For graduate students reading this article, learn more about what your faculty members are doing—read their papers, listen to their talks, meet their students—and when you find someone's work particularly interesting, approach that person about getting involved. For faculty, encourage your students to apply for the SPARC award.