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Next Generation of Epilepsy Researchers includes U. of Alabama’s Cody Locke
“Carpe diem,” one of the world’s most famous and satirized phrases, has long been taking on different variations and meanings.
“Carp diem” – Fish of the day
“Carpe Duh” – Seize the idiot
“Car Payment Diem” – Seize the checkbook
The list goes on and on. But we can tack another more serious one onto this growing list of “carpe diem” deviations, as University of Alabama undergraduate Cody Locke, 22, not long ago coined the term “CarpeDB,” short for “seize the database” or “seize the information.”
Locke’s new term corresponds with a new online database (www.carpedb.ua.edu) he created which centers on the genetics of epilepsy. It contains more than 400 genes which are known to be associated with epilepsy, in addition to a plethora of additional genes that are suspected to be involved with epilepsy. As well as listing all these genes, Locke’s database contains hundreds of associated scientific publications and abstracts.
Why is this important? Well, according to Locke, “the opportunities for learning more about epilepsy genetics through scientific literature were not very good. I found that information was scattered amongst many different Web sites, various protein databanks and assorted model organisms from specific Web sites.”
In short, what was needed was a one-stop shop for all genes connected to epilepsy. Otherwise it was far too difficult for epilepsy researchers to work from multiple Web sites at once to ascertain who was doing what and what had already been discovered.
So impressive and innovative was Locke’s work on CarpeDB that it recently earned him his third consecutive berth to USA Today’s 2006 All-USA College Academic Team – the first student ever to be elected three times. This time he garnered first team accolades, making him one of the top 20 college students in America. In 2004 and 2005 he was a second team honoree.
As humbling as three appearances on this acclaimed list was for Locke, it couldn’t beat what occurred in February. CarpeDB was published in the medical journal Science, arguably one of the world’s foremost scientific research journals.
“I have long regarded Science magazine to be the best journal in the world,” Locke said. “Therefore, to see my name, the names of my mentors and epilepsy recognized in the manner it was, I feel greatly inspired and want to continue employing CarpeDB and trying to identify genes.”
Luckily for the epilepsy community, Locke will have plenty of time to do those things, as he hopes to continue his career in epilepsy research for quite awhile longer.
“I’m really passionate about neuroscience,” Locke said. “I think it’s one of the most amazing things on the planet. I mean, it’s the human brain and I want to learn as much about the human brain and the conditions affecting it as I can.”
A Career in Epilepsy Research is Born
Locke didn’t begin college with an epilepsy career path in mind. Instead, he at first tinkered with the idea of general biology research and only chose to go to the University of Alabama because of its Computer-Based Honors Program, a program which allows students to try to find ways in which they can employ computer-based technology in their fields of study.
A period of self-discovery ensued and it wasn’t long before Locke became heavily enamored with the notion of incorporating computers into biology research. The more he learned, the more interested he became in finding a way to integrate the two disciplines.
He wound up taking honors general biology with Guy Caldwell, Ph.D., a noted epilepsy researcher and Locke’s future mentor. One day Caldwell spent a class discussing a new project that was underway in his on-campus laboratory. He and his colleagues were trying to identify various epilepsy genes – potentially new epilepsy genes – using roundworms called c-elegans. The seed was planted; Locke was fascinated.
Afterwards, Locke pleaded to join Caldwell’s lab. Locke approached Caldwell with an idea the researcher found intriguing: using computers to further his research. Caldwell admitted his interest in using what the epilepsy research world already knew from scientific literature and trying to identify a list of suspected candidate genes for epilepsy that they would later study at the molecular level. The hope was to attain a better understanding of how these genes might be causing seizures in epilepsy patients.
Locke wasted no time and began working. At first he was thinking about simply paging through the literature, trying to catalog a set of genes and then looking for those same genes in the c-elegans to compile a big list. However, that’s when Locke discovered how unorganized everything was. Upon telling Caldwell of this problem, the project shifted focus and CarpeDB emerged.
CarpeDB Exceeds Expectations
Locke and Caldwell had no idea how comprehensive and popular their new undertaking, CarpeDB, would become in such a short amount of time.
“[With CarpeDB] we were hoping to fill a void in the epilepsy community,” said Caldwell in an article published on the University of Alabama’s Web site. “You can get all of this information from a variety of places, but not from one single source. It’s an interactive resource, meaning there’s a way for scientists and doctors to submit new data on genes they may have identified or new papers they may have published.”
Noting that it’s relatively new and “not Google or anything,” Locke takes pride knowing the site is already being accessed more than a few dozen times per day from around the world. Considering how many people are doing epilepsy research, Locke says this number is “pretty good.”
The reason for CarpeDB’s near-overnight popularity can probably be explained by its recognition in Science, as well as Locke’s two visits to the annual American Epilepsy Society meeting. AES meetings bring together some of the world’s top neurologists.
“I’ve gotten wonderful feedback from those at the American Epilepsy Society meetings, as well as from my mentors – particularly Guy Caldwell,” Locke said. “People are really into it, and so long as people are using it I’m going to continue working on it. And by the time I’m ready to leave the university, I’m going to make sure that there’s another individual that will continue updating CarpeDB and continuing to make it a very useful resource for the epilepsy community and researchers.”
But, of course, Locke isn’t planning on leaving Alabama anytime soon – a fact that Caldwell is quite pleased to reiterate.
“Cody has taken [CarpeDB] to a higher level than I thought possible,” Caldwell said in an article published on the University of Alabama’s Web site. “It speaks to his thirst for knowledge and to his maturity, as a young scientist, to want to learn as much as possible about the field he’s working on. What’s more exciting, he wants to maintain it, and he wants to stay involved with it as he continues on to graduate school.”
A Diamond in the Rough
With such impressive accomplishments already attached to his name, questions as to his pedigree are on the tips of every tongue. His parents, Mickey and Patsy, must be scientists with multiple advanced degrees, right?
Wrong. Shockingly, Locke is the first member of his family to attend college.
“My parents are very supportive,” Locke said. “I think they’re both very intelligent people, they just didn’t have the kind of opportunities to go to college like I had.”
Locke’s intelligence is just as big a mystery to his parents. His mother says she continuously asks where his aptitude for science comes from, but he just shrugs and says, “I’m just wired differently.”
And also according to him, he’s been demonstrating a knack for science since early childhood. As a kid he remembers studying the behaviors of flies and other animals. Then, as a junior in high school, he recalls starting to read “lay-person” science journals, like Scientific American and Discover. It’s those magazines he credits for opening his mind to what the big questions are in science.
Currently, the big question in his opinion is, “How can we better treat or maybe even cure epilepsy?” Count on him working hard to figure it out, too, because he’s not abandoning the epilepsy research field anytime soon.
“I haven’t yet begun to understand all there is to know about epilepsy. I have a basic knowledge, but I’m still learning,” Locke said. “I really do want to stick with this for a number of years, if not for an entire career.”
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