UCLA senior William Thomas Clarke"s journey, which led him to win a prestigious Marshall Scholarship that will fund two years of graduate study at England"s University of Oxford and has an estimated value of $60,000, started with a bit of a joke.
Clarke, 21, conducts research in the laboratory of Rachelle Crosbie, a UCLA assistant professor of physiological science who discovered a small protein called sarcospan which seems to play a key role in muscular dystrophy. There is a link between sarcospan and another protein called utrophin; at abnormally high levels in muscle, sarcospan causes increased production of utrophin.
In the laboratory one day, Crosbie, graduate student Angela Peter and Clarke were talking about Kay Davies, a professor at Oxford"s Medical Research Council Functional Genetics Unit and the world"s leading expert on utrophin.
"I"ve never been out of the country before," Clarke said, "and I was joking with them, saying, ‘You should send me over to Oxford to work with her." A day or two later, I got an e-mail from a listserv — I get thousands of them — that said I can apply for the Marshall Scholarship and study in England for two years. I told Dr. Crosbie about it, and she said, ‘I"ll contact professor Davies at Oxford for you." I wouldn"t have this without Dr. Crosbie."
Clarke, who has a 3.93 grade-point average, will graduate from UCLA in March, and will start working in Davies" Oxford laboratory in October. He later plans to earn an M.D. and specialize in neurology, incorporating state-of the-science research into the treatment of patients suffering from serious illness.
"My grandfather practiced medicine for over fifty years, and I quietly observed his life"s devotion to prolonging the lives of his patients," Clarke said.
"Cancer is a terrible disease that, at some point, will affect nearly every family," he added. "My family has been particularly touched by cancer because of a rare hereditary disorder called Lynch syndrome, which is caused by mutations to specific genes, resulting in an 80 percent chance of developing colorectal cancer during one"s lifetime. My mother"s grandfather, father, aunt, uncle and cousin all died from some complication of colorectal cancer, and my mom and four of her five brothers have developed precancerous colon polyps. I hope I am fortunate enough some day to be at the forefront of treating inherited human diseases, developing and testing novel therapies to treat inherited human diseases, and identifying new genetic causes for such diseases."
Crosbie"s UCLA research group is the world"s leader on sarcospan and has recently identified a novel therapeutic approach that uses sarcospan for the treatment of Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), the most common form of the devastating neuromuscular disease. Children with DMD generally die from cardiac or respiratory failure by age 20. Currently there is no known cure for any form muscular dystrophy, a group of more than 30 genetic diseases characterized by progressive weakness and degeneration of the skeletal muscles that control movement. Graduate student Angela Peter is working with Crosbie on the sarcospan research, and Crosbie has a pending patent application.
"The Marshall Scholarship represents an important opportunity to combine two unique areas of expertise, sarcospan and utrophin, toward a highly promising treatment for Duchenne muscular dystrophy," Crosbie said.
"I will look at opportunities to use my knowledge of inherited human diseases from a discovery-based research standpoint and perhaps implement them in treatment," Clarke said. "I would like to bridge the research that is conducted in laboratories and use that to treat patients. If the research by Dr. Crosbie and Angela Peter shows significant promise for sarcospan therapies for muscular dystrophy in the future, I would be very interested in being one of the people who uses that approach in the treatment of patients."
Crosbie praised Clarke"s research skills and said, "Tom is an enthusiastic, brilliant, charming young man and a truly gifted research scientist with impressive academic, research, athletic and community accomplishments. Tom conducts his research with a level of confidence and skill that is more akin to 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."
Clarke, who is in his third year working in the laboratory, has only praise and gratitude for Crosbie, Peter and Crosbie"s former graduate student Janine Bekker (who is now a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University).
"I have daily interaction with Dr. Crosbie," Clarke said. "We meet about my research and what experiments I"m going to do. If I get results, we discuss it right away. Working with Dr. Crosbie is a unique opportunity and a great learning experience. I never feel like I"m the undergraduate who is being told what to do. Angela and Janine have taught me so much, including how to do experiments. Dr. Crosbie, Angela and Janine have taught me nearly everything I know."
G. Jennifer Wilson, assistant vice provost for Honors in the UCLA College of Letters and Science, said, "Tom"s research has shown him that not all people have the chance to move their bodies in exuberance in the way that he can, and one of his goals in life is to be a part of the medical breakthroughs that may some day allow us to alter and ‘mend" the genes that are at the root of genetically expressed disabilities such as muscular dystrophy."
Wilson praised Clarke"s academic record and his "intellectual wealth, magnetic brand of tenacious will and enthusiasm, palpable compassion, and unbridled enthusiasm."
Clarke, who majors in molecular, cell and developmental biology, studies how proteins work together, including how they form complexes and how they signal one another. He will be studying these questions further at Oxford.
Research is humbling, Clarke said, but has greatly enhanced his education.
"The opportunity to conduct undergraduate research is so important because it gives so much more meaning to what I learn in my classes," Clarke said. "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. Working in the laboratory has made me a better student and enabled me to read critically. Now when I read a research study, I think about what"s going on behind the scenes and analyze the research. Doing research yourself actually changes the way you think about science.
"When you do research, you have to be excited about little discoveries," Clarke said, "because a bunch of little discoveries may eventually lead to a big discovery."
The Marshall Scholarship is widely considered one of the most prestigious awards a graduating American undergraduate can receive. The Marshall Scholarships were established by the British government in 1953 as a gesture of thanks to the American people for the assistance received after World War II under the Marshall Plan. Prominent past Marshall Scholars include U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, former Arizona governor and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, Pulitzer Prize–winning author and journalist Thomas Friedman of the New York Times and Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh.
About going to Oxford, Clarke said, "I"m excited about the research. It means a lot to share this recognition with Dr. Crosbie and UCLA, who have given so much to me. I was grateful that Dr. Crosbie accepted me three years ago, and I"m grateful that Professor Davies is going to take me."
Clarke has won many honors and accolades for academic excellence, including the UCLA Dean"s Prize for outstanding undergraduate research, several UCLA Honors scholarships and membership in UCLA"s highly selective Howard Hughes Undergraduate Research Program. As a Howard Hughes research scholar, he participates in a two-year academic program in which students who conduct biomedical research discuss current research published in scientific journals on topics ranging from alternative ways to harvest stem cells without destroying the embryo to the development of designer drugs that mimic the human body"s natural enzymes.
Clarke worked three summers as a coach and counselor at the UCLA Basketball Summer Camp and has a letter of recommendation for medical school from UCLA"s head basketball coach, Ben Howland, as well as from Crosbie and other faculty members.
"It is important to me to instill in my players the values of discipline, sportsmanship and leadership, in addition to the fundamentals of basketball," Clarke said.
He also has performed community and university service, including serving as vice chairman of the UCLA John Wooden Center board of governors.
Clarke was born and raised in Phoenix, Ariz., and was valedictorian of his 2003 graduating class at Sunnyslope High School. His parents still live in Phoenix.
"I appreciate the people at UCLA," Clarke said. "I could have gone to other universities, and it"s reaffirming to know that I made the right choice in UCLA."
California"s largest university, UCLA enrolls approximately 38,000 students per year and offers degrees from the UCLA College of Letters and Science and 11 professional schools in dozens of varied disciplines. UCLA consistently ranks among the top five universities and colleges nationally in total research-and-development spending, receiving more than $820 million a year in competitively awarded federal and state grants and contracts. For every $1 state taxpayers invest in UCLA, the university generates almost $9 in economic activity, resulting in an annual $6 billion economic impact on the Greater Los Angeles region. The university"s health care network treats 450,000 patients per year. UCLA employs more than 27,000 faculty and staff, has more than 350,000 living alumni and has been home to five Nobel Prize recipients.