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Desire to understand the causes of 'runner's gut' prompts grad to pursue PhD in Gastrointestinal system

Steve Sparksman, a former Nortel telecommunications engineer based in Asia for more than 15 years, never thought he'd return to Calgary to complete an undergraduate degree in biology as a member of the class of '16, let alone be on his way to a PhD in medicine.

"I graduated in the mid-1980s with a diploma in telecom engineering from SAIT," explains Sparksman, who was quickly recruited by Nortel following graduation. "I had a successful 13-year career at Nortel, starting off as a technologist and transferring to the Research and Development Department, steadily climbing through the ranks to the roles of design engineer, group leader, manager and finally senior manager."

At Nortel, Sparksman's primary role involved developing new products from the Calgary office while also travelling to various countries such as the UK, France and Malaysia.

"I was involved in improving society every day of my career," he recalls. "Each of the hundreds of new products I helped release to market improved the lives of people in the community, making the public more efficient and therefore more prosperous. The products I was involved in included business telephones, cordless telephones, PBX telephone systems for business and cellular network equipment."

Sparksman left Nortel with two U.S. patents and several corporate awards to his name to pursue new professional opportunities in Asia. There, he lived and worked in Hong Kong and China for 15 years where he supervised 350 engineers.

"Those were very stimulating times, again having the opportunity to lead highly effective teams, learn about new cultures and make a lasting impact on society by developing hundreds of more telecommunication and software products," shares the dad of two young adults in their 20s.

Interest in fitness paved way for return to university

To offset the intense demands of his professional life, Sparksman went "all-in" with fitness and wellness-related hobbies, ultimately paving the way for his return to university.

"I casually got into hiking and that slowly led to trail running and before I knew it, I was intensely training as a serious ultra-marathon athlete. What really perplexed me in that sport was how highly prepared and fit runners were being hit by major stomach issues just a few kilometres shy of the finish line," he says.

It was this precise query into the wonders of the human body combined with major changes in his workplace that sparked the lifelong learner to quit his two-decade career in the telecommunication sector and hit the books at age 48.

A return to school for the pure joy of it

"I was fortunate in that I had developed a solid base of knowledge in finance. Being a disciplined individual, I had amassed sufficient financial resources to enable that change of lifestyle so I decided to leave my career and return to school for the pure joy of it."

After briefly attending the University of Hong Kong's Sports Science program, Sparksman realized he needed a deeper education in pure science. The timing coincided with his desire to live closer to his parents back in Calgary — all of which prompted his application to the University of Calgary.

"When I enrolled in the Faculty of Science in 2011, my plan was to pursue a degree in biochemistry to deepen my understanding of what happens in the gut in extreme conditions such as ultra-marathon running," he says.

With the peace of mind of being a financially independent student, he spent the next years fully immersed in his studies. "I appreciated Steve's focus on understanding the basic principles that applied to each biological system under study," says Rob Edwards, a senior instructor who taught Sparksman in three courses of the biochemistry program. "He also integrated so effectively into the classes, relating to students who were half his age."

Always go 'all-in' in everything you do

Fuelled by a relentless curiosity, passion for learning and a solid work ethic, Sparksman opened many unexpected doors to several lab research projects — all of which have now paved the way for his next challenge.

"I just got word from the Cumming School of Medicine that I've been admitted into their PhD program in the gastrointestinal research group. I can't believe this is happening. I can't wait to dive even deeper into my initial topic of interest. I sincerely hope that one day, I'll be able to go back to Hong Kong to tell my running peers all about the intricacies of the gut during ultra-marathon running," he exclaims.

So how did he pull this off? When asked about what it takes to get to this point, Sparksman says: "Besides having an enormously supportive spouse, my best piece of advice to all students, whether young or more mature, is to always go 'all-in' in everything you do," concludes the student who intends to follow his own advice as he begins his next intellectual journey.

The Calvin, Phoebe and Joan Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases was named in 2008 in honour of Joan Snyder and her parents, who she credits for teaching her the value of philanthropy. It is a group of more than 104 clinicians, clinician-scientists and basic scientists who are impacting and changing the lives of people suffering from chronic diseases, including sepsis, MRSA, cystic fibrosis, type-1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. For more information on the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases, please visit us at or follow us on Twitter @SnyderInstitute.