Love in Academia: Sparks and Struppa

Posted: February 10, 2005 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Married couples in academia often seek positions at colleges or universities where both spouses can work, and most institutions are eager to arrange a “package deal” to accommodate them. George Mason University is no exception. There are many couples on the faculty and staff, and in this week leading up to Valentine’s Day, the Gazette profiles some of them.

To Russia, with Love

By Stephanie Hay

Who: Lisa Sparks, associate professor, Communication, and Daniele Struppa, dean, College of Arts and Sciences and professor, Mathematical Sciences.

How long they’ve been at Mason: Struppa came in 1988; Sparks arrived in 1999.

How they met: Struppa interviewed Sparks in 2000 when she was applying for an assistant professor position in the Department of Communication. Little did he know he had just met the love of his life.

Becoming friends: “We became friends in 2001 when we began discussing a research conference on cancer communication and aging she was organizing,” Struppa says. In 2002, Sparks was on research leave at the National Institutes of Health as a cancer communication research fellow. While on leave, Sparks used her flexible schedule to increase her training for several marathons. Struppa was also involved in intensive training, but for the more extreme sport of mountain climbing. His cross-training involved daily strength training and running at 5:30 a.m. nearly every day. “We began to discover that we had similar training and sport interests. Then, while on leave, we occasionally ran together at Burke Lake. Sometimes I would see her at the gym, but she’s not such an early morning person,” Struppa jokes.

Meeting in Moscow: Their friendship grew in 2002 while Struppa was spending his sabbatical overseas. Struppa finished climbing Mount Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe, and traveled to meet a team of researchers from George Mason University and Inova Fairfax Hospital at an oncology center in Moscow. “I remember first seeing him outside the oncology center wearing a thin T-shirt with Cyrillic letters, and a green bandana,” Sparks says. “I hadn’t changed into my suit yet,” Struppa explains.

Roses every month: Struppa then left for Tibet to climb more mountains. Yet, he continued to communicate with Sparks as he traveled the globe. “I’d get a dozen roses about once a month and wonder, how is he finding time to send these? It must be some crazy Italian thing.”

And then: The couple continued to talk over e-mail and the phone during the months Sparks was on leave. In December 2002, Struppa invited Sparks to climb Mount Cotopaxi in Equador with him—with an expensive blue box in his backpack. “She came along, and we painfully learned that she was a slow acclimatizer and couldn’t go higher than 16,000 feet because she had acute mountain sickness,” Struppa says.

Lisa Sparks and Daniele Struppa
Sparks and Struppa on the mountain where he proposed.

A perfect moment: “I had no idea,” Sparks says. “I was on my way down the mountain with this splitting headache and he starts throwing stuff out of his bag. He comes down after me and pulls out this box, and then I finally understood what was happening.” She says the moment was perfect, with clouds all around, as Struppa proposed. They were married a year later in southern Italy, surrounded by friends and family.

The advantages of working at the same place: “We get to see each other all the time, and we can coordinate each others’ schedules, pitching in with family when needed,” Struppa says. Coordinating schedules may be particularly important now that the couple has five-month-old Arianna in addition to Elena, their seven-year-old daughter.

The disadvantages of working at the same place: Both shake their heads and stare at each other. “None, really,” they agree, before remembering that gossip, especially when their romance first began budding, was quite interesting (in fact, much more colorful than reality).

Happily ever after: “I feel like we are particularly blessed and special as a couple and as parents,” Sparks says. The couple plans to purchase a home in Tuscany or Sicily in the near future so that Lisa, Elena, and Arianna can learn Italian. “All I know how to say is Io non capisco Italiano; vino; and dolce,” Sparks admits. “Very good, sweetie-pie,” Struppa says.

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