A Young Biologist Seizes the Moment

March 3, 2005

Lots of colleges brag about undergraduate research, but particularly in the sciences, separating the substance from the fluff is a challenge. Outside validation helps, and Cody Locke's work on epilepsy research at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa has it.

Science magazine is the latest well-respected entity -- following in the wake of the National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health -- to take note of CarpeDB, the database for epilepsy researchers that Locke has created. At the urging of Guy Caldwell, in whose lab Locke works, the junior biology major has built a central repository for information about the many potential genes and pieces of DNA that might be responsible for causing epilepsy, which affects more people than any other neurologic disorder and is known especially for the seizures that characterize it.

Researchers and others can search the database for information and publications about the nearly 400 genes or genetic materials that are thought to play a possible role in causing epilepsy. Locke himself constantly scours the literature looking for possible additions, and researchers and epilepsy specialists can also submit data that, once vetted by Locke, can be included in the database. Scienceincluded a reference to it in its "Netwatch" feature in its February 25 issue.

Locke is in Alabama's Computer-Based Honors Program, which encourages students to find innovative ways to put their technological skills to use. A self-described "naturalist," Locke says biology is the perfect tableau on which to do that. "The future of biology is very much governed by the application of new technologies," he says.

Early on in his time at Alabama, Locke took an honors biology course from Caldwell and "pleaded," he says, to join the lab that Caldwell runs with his wife, Kim, who are both assistant professors of biology. The lab, which in addition to epilepsy work is funded by Michael J. Fox to do Parkinson's research, is known for giving meaningful jobs to undergraduates. "My wife and I don't have our own children, so integrating undergraduates into the work is kind of our thing," Guy Caldwell says.

"We require a significant level of commitment, equivalent to joining the football team or the band. If you want to do a little research or piddle around, find another lab."

Locke has stepped right into the mix. In addition to creating the epilepsy database, he has already co-written a paper published in Human Molecular Genetics (which you can find in a search of CarpeDB) on a successful effort to reproduce the equivalent of epileptic seizures in a microsopic nematode, or worm, called C.elegans. That finding means that researchers can now study the worm as a "model for studying epilepsy," Locke says.

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