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Translational Research Sparks Grad Student’s Extraordinary Passion

When you’re on the cusp of fulfilling a decade-long dream, you don’t let something like a crippling snow storm get in your way.

You do what Courtney Rousse Sparks did. You get your dad to drive you through the storm so you can interview at the school you’ve always wanted to be a part of, so you can do the kind of work you just knew you were meant to do.

Sparks’ interview for the dual DVM/Ph.D. program at the NC State College of Veterinary Medicine was during the big Raleigh winter storm of 2014. The weather wasn’t the only thing making Sparks nervous. Traditionally, the program only accepts one or two students a year. Sparks isn’t a fan of public speaking and she was told one week before her interview that she would have to present her undergraduate research done at the University of Richmond. She had never done that.

The next day, she got a phone call.

“I was driving back to Richmond and I recognized Sam Jones’ phone number calling,” said Sparks, referring to the CVM professor of equine medicine who oversees the dual program. “And he said, ‘What are you doing?’ My heart was just racing. And he said, ‘Do you like it here at State?’ And I said, ‘Yes, sir!’ He offered me the position. I asked him if he was serious.”

He was and so was she. It’s difficult to be anything but serious about a program that requires at least seven more years of school and switching back and forth between a research lab and veterinary medicine classes, all while working on a Ph.D.

The dual degree program is intense and demanding — and everything Sparks has wanted it to be. Now in her third year at the CVM, Sparks, 25, spent her first year devoted to her Ph.D. work, and the next two years have been devoted to DVM classes. Her goal is to be done in seven years, very fast for the dual program.

It’s a balancing act. While Sparks was studying for final exams she was also getting the ball rolling on clinical trials related to her Ph.D. research. She’s studying Chiari-like malformations, a hereditary skull malformation in Cavalier King Charles spaniels that causes crowding of the brain and resulting compression of the spinal cord. This neurological condition is associated with clinical signs ranging from withdrawn behavior, “phantom scratching” or scratching without touching the skin and severe neuropathic pain.

It’s very common for the breed and no one quite knows why. For someone like Sparks, attracted to the “not knowing” aspect of research, it’s a ceaselessly intriguing project.

There’s a passionate energy when Sparks talks about her research, her voice rising in excitement even with talking about things like “baseline measurements” and “outcome measures” and “biomarkers.”

“I knew I loved clinical medicine just as much as I did research, and I didn’t want to choose one or the other,” said Sparks. “I knew nothing about dual degree programs until I was sitting in a random pre-vet meeting one day. And then I found out that NC State, my dream school, had one. That was it for me.”

“I think that persistence and perseverance has gotten me places I never expected to go,” said Sparks. “I dreamed about going to the vet school at NC State, but when I made that an expectation for myself it came true.”

Sparks was introduced to the world of research her junior year at the University of Richmond, attending on a golf scholarship and majoring in biochemistry with a minor in business administration. She spent a year studying how the rodent brains change post-pregnancy, leading to maternalistic behavior and then comparing that to similar maternal changes in humans.

“That translational aspect really captured me,” said Sparks. “Given my concurrent interest in clinical medicine, I struggled at times with the broader impact of research, not feeling like I could connect with what it meant for the future or how it could change lives. So this One Health, traditional approach to research using animal models to benefit human medicine, I just felt instant passion for.”

That passion still burns as she works with Natasha Olby, a professor of neurology and neurosurgery whose research lab focuses on canine spinal cord injury and other projects exploring the genetic basis of neurodegenerative disease.

During the first year of the program, dual DVM/Ph.D. students are allowed to rotate through research labs to find the best fit. Sparks started her lab experience with Olby and never rotated out, fascinated by neurology research and inspired by how Olby divides her time between research and clinical medicine.

The Chiari-like malformation study may also have translational applications. Humans suffer from the condition as well and Sparks’ determination to develop more effective treatments for the condition in Cavalier King Charles spaniels could lead to improved treatments for people as well.

“What you find out in dogs might not correlate at all to humans,” said Sparks. “But just the fact that there’s an overlap in the disease process, that drives my interest in it, that I can see how this could have a global impact.

“I don’t want to be doing something just to do it. I want to know who it’s going to impact and by how much.”

“There’s a greater cause here at the college,” said Sparks. “It’s not just for you to get your degree and leave. This school is building your foundation to be able to change the world. That’s what drives me.”

Sparks has always had this drive and has always loved veterinary medicine. Growing up in Holly Springs, she used to play doctor with her stuffed animals and small family dogs — “I used to tell people how I was going to fix them if something happened to them,” she said — and first visited to the CVM during Open House when she was 8 years old.

“I remember there being horses and dogs everywhere and I couldn’t stop smiling,” she said. “There was surgery going on that you could watch and that just amazed me. My jaw was dropped the whole time I was looking around.”

Her parents are sources of unwavering support and encouragement; their own strong work ethics have been inspirational and enlightening. Sparks learned to embrace challenges and understand the importance of pushing herself to succeed. Sparks started playing golf at a comparatively late age, when she was almost in high school. By her junior year of high school, she had earned a golf scholarship.

She also learned to not ignore her dreams, even if they seemed inherently out of reach. Her dad has always told her that if you have a shot at something, you should take it.

“I think that persistence and perseverance has gotten me places I never expected to go,” said Sparks. “I dreamed about going to the vet school at NC State, but when I made that an expectation for myself it came true.”

Now in the middle of her DVM/Ph.D. experience, Sparks will continue to work on her Ph.D. and the Cavalier King Charles spaniels study. In March, she was one of five recipients nationally of the American Veterinary Medical Foundation’s 2nd Opportunity Research Scholarship, which allows her to continue research she began last summer. She’ll present her work at the National Institutes of Health Symposium this summer.

And she’s thought about the future. Having a dual DVM/Ph.D. opens many doors and provides different options in the veterinary medicine industry. Ideally, Sparks said she’ll have a career that still won’t make her choose between clinical work and impactful research.

Because Sparks is devoted to making that come true, it likely will.

“There’s a greater cause here at the college,” said Sparks. “It’s not just for you to get your degree and leave. This school is building your foundation to be able to change the world. That’s what drives me.

“It’s amazing, the opportunities you get here to make a difference. And that’s all I ever wanted to do.”

For more information on Sparks’ research, go to Neurology: Chiari-like Malformations

 For more information on the NC State College of Veterinary Medicine’s dual DVM/Ph.D. program, go to DVM Education: Dual Degree Programs.

~Jordan Bartel/NC State Veterinary Medicine