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URMC / Pathology & Laboratory Medicine / Read Our Blog / April 2018 / Janet Sparks, Ph.D., was a Model Scientist and Mentor to Many

Janet Sparks, Ph.D., was a Model Scientist and Mentor to Many

Janet SparksHer colleagues have described her as a hidden gem, a well- kept secret, and even “human dynamite.” Dr. Janet Sparks, whose life ended suddenly in December 2017, had a career at URMC spanning more than three decades. Her accomplishments and legacy as both a researcher and mentor continue to impact those who had the chance to work alongside her.

Janet began her career as a medical technologist at the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned bachelor’s degrees in medical technology and biology and, later, her Ph.D. While she ultimately pursued basic research, having a background in the clinical labs helped shape her perspective and understanding of disease.

Janet met her future husband, Dr. Charles (“Charlie”) Sparks, while she was working as a med tech at U. Penn. They were married in 1977, starting a longstanding personal and professional partnership. Both were hired onto the Pathology faculty at URMC where he worked primarily as a clinical pathologist and she ran the Sparks research lab.

The two collaborated on projects related primarily to cardiovascular diabetes. Their working relationship was built on mutual respect, explained Charlie, who says Janet was a devoted mother to their three children in addition to taking her work very seriously. Having the opportunity to work as a husband-wife team was, as he says, a privilege.

“When two people work together that closely, it could be good or bad,” said Charlie. “We would only argue about science so that by the time we got home, there was no time to argue about anything else.”

They continued this work after moving to Florida and split time between living there and at their longtime Pittsford home. At the time of her death (related to complications related to a myocardial infarction) the pair had a research collaboration with the University of South Florida. Janet had submitted an NIH grant that, at the time of this writing, was still awaiting approval. Charlie says he hopes to continue the work in her honor.

“I felt very good about the research we were doing and I would like to see it completed,” he said.

Across the University, many former colleagues and trainees have shared their memories of Janet – describing her as kind, driven, and a dedicated scientist.

One of her many mentees over the years was Dr. Jim Corsetti. He first crossed paths with her as a resident. When she saw that he was scrambling to find time to complete research experiments, she gladly jumped in to help, volunteering her time and lab space to run experiments for him.

“There wasn’t an awful lot in it for her except the satisfaction of helping somebody and getting them to a place where their career was more established,” said Corsetti, who credits her with teaching him the many nuances of lipids and lipoproteins, which he continued to explore during his career.

“To degree that I’ve gotten good in those areas, it certainly was she that brought me there,” he said. “She was so good in the lab and very generous with her time.”

Janet also mentored Dr. Linda Schiffhauer during a teaching fellowship. In addition to being a role model, Schiffhauer was happy to call her a friend.

“She was a great mentor and advocate for me in so many ways when, in my career, I probably needed it the most,” said Schiffhauer. “She was all that you could ever want in a mentor.”

Those who knew her remember Janet’s enthusiasm for nutrition and exercise. She would get up before dawn to make coffee and hit the gym before heading into work. Her energy was contagious.

“She was most passionate about her research,” said Joanne Cianci, who worked in the Sparks lab for more than 20 years. “Her work was a huge part of what she was, but she cared about people and established a culture of complete trust.”

Janet was very well known internationally, being listed in both Who’s Who in America and the world. There will be a memorial tribute in The Journal of Lipid Research. She sat on numerous review committees, including for the NIH. She was quiet and humble which is one reason why she was better known internationally than locally.

In spite of her own skill and accomplishments, those who worked alongside Janet in the lab say she was a very hands-on instructor; a daily coach who always sought to encourage and elevate her trainees.

This quality left an impression on many, including Dr. Thuy Phung who had Janet as her PhD thesis advisor and worked in Sparks lab for four years.

Phung had never heard of Janet until she was sitting in the office of the MD/PhD director at the time. He suggested working with Janet because she was a well-hidden secret. What did he mean by that?

“He said that she was highly valuable and skillful, but not well known,” said Phung. “She was talented and humble as well, which to me is a virtue.”

In this way, she modeled what it meant to be a good scientist, fueled by constant curiosity, Phung explained.

“She was doing experiments even until the last days.”

This story appeared in the April 2018 edition of the Pathways to Excellence Newsletter

Bethany Bushen | 4/10/2018

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