UCLA senior William Thomas Clarke realized right from the start that he had landed a golden opportunity when he was invited to work closely with campus researchers doing pioneering work on sarcospan, a protein that may play a key role in muscular dystrophy.
"It gives so much more meaning to what I learn in my classes," said Clarke of his undergraduate research experience. He is now in his third year of working in the laboratory of Rachelle Crosbie, assistant professor of physiological science. "You can read textbooks, hear professors lecture and even read scientific papers in journals. But when you actually design experiments yourself and perform experiments and interpret data, it takes your understanding far beyond what is possible without research."
Recently, this invaluable lab experience paid off with a huge bonus that Clarke never anticipated. Crosbie helped Clarke win a Marshall Scholarship, which will fund two years of graduate studies at the University of Oxford in England. It is widely considered among the most prestigious awards a graduating American undergraduate can receive.
"I wouldn't have this without Dr. Crosbie," said Clarke, an Alumni Scholar who received a Distinguished Senior Award from the UCLA Alumni Association.
Even before he knew about the Marshall, Clarke had overheard Crosbie and graduate student Angela Peter talking about a colleague at Oxford who is doing groundbreaking work on a protein called utrophin that is linked to sarcospan.
Clarke, who has never been out of the country before, joked, "You should send me over to Oxford to work with her." A day or two later, Clarke received a mass e-mail inviting him to apply for the scholarship. When he told Crosbie about it, she contacted her Oxford colleague, Kay Davies, about Clarke.
As a result, Clarke will start working in Davies' Oxford laboratory in October after he graduates from UCLA this March with a major in molecular, cell, and developmental biology and a goal of becoming a doctor specializing in neurology.
"I'm excited about the research. It means a lot to share this recognition with Dr. Crosbie and UCLA because they have given so much to me," said Clarke. "I was grateful that Dr. Crosbie accepted me three years ago and grateful that Professor Davies is going to take me."
Crosbie said of her talented undergraduate researcher: "Tom conducts his research with a level of confidence and skill that is more akin a senior graduate student than an undergraduate. In a short period of time, it became clear to everyone in my group that Tom is exceptionally perceptive, smart and driven."
Crosbie also sees another sizable benefit to the scholarship. Her UCLA research team recently identified a novel therapeutic approach that uses sarcospan, which she discovered, in the treatment of Duchenne muscular dystrophy, the most common form of the disorder.
"The Marshall Scholarship represents an important opportunity," she said, "to combine two unique areas of expertise, sarcospan and utrophin, toward a highly promising treatment for Duchenne muscular dystrophy."