Meet a Member

Nicole Sparks, PhD

University of California Irvine

What type of research do you do?

My name is Nicole Sparks, and I am a Assistant Professor at the University of California Irvine. My research focuses on the changes of stem cell fate due to toxicant exposure that associates with skeletal birth defects. My doctoral research elucidated the adverse effects of “harm-reduction” tobacco products on the cell fate of human embryonic stem cells (hESCs), specifically differentiation into the bone-forming cells—osteoblasts. This research discovered transcription factors, necessary for proper bone differentiation, that were negatively impacted by tobacco exposure, potentially uncovering an underlying mechanism between maternal smoking and birth defects. Currently, I am uncovering the role miRNAs play in the adverse outcome pathway associated with prenatal chemical exposure on bone development. My overall goal is to understand how a toxicant can have deleterious effects at the molecular level that could lead to innovative approaches to diagnose, prevent, and treat skeletal malformations.

Why did you choose birth defects research?

Being a mother of two, a 14- and a 11- year old, who both were born prematurely contributed to my interests in toxicant-associated unwanted birth defects research. Also, many of my husband’s underlining health issues can be attributed to growing up in an indoor smoking household.

What is your best tip to succeeding as a birth defects researcher?

Having a family while in school was challenging but also very fulfilling, finding that work-life balance is a struggle but very important. I owe much of my success to being persistent, time management, positivity, and knowing my goals and worth. I always encourage everyone to take the initiative and go for every opportunity and do not let others nor doubt discourage you.

Why did you join the Society for Birth Defects Research and Prevention?

As an African American woman and mother, I joined BDRP to add diversification to the society. Further, I wanted to share my developmental toxicity research aimed at elucidating the adverse effects of chemical exposure, preventing harm to vulnerable populations and underrepresented groups, and understand the health disparities they may face.

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