Outstanding Science Students at UA Chosen as Dystonia, Parkinson’s Scholars

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Five leading undergraduate science students at The University of Alabama have been named 2009-2010 Alabama Dystonia Scholars and Parkinson’s Association of Alabama Scholars.

The honored students work with Drs. Guy and Kim Caldwell in their research lab in UA’s biological sciences department.

Guy Caldwell, associate professor of biological sciences, co-directs the UA research lab, known as the “Worm Shack,” with his wife, Kim Caldwell, assistant professor of biological sciences. The Caldwells’ research centers on dystonia and Parkinson’s disease. They use a microscopic worm in their work to learn more about genetic factors and drugs that influence these currently incurable diseases that affect millions of people worldwide.

Alabama Dystonia Scholars are Nathan Roberts and John Ricketts
Alabama Dystonia Scholars are Nathan Roberts and John Ricketts

Two UA students, Nathan Roberts and John Ricketts, have each been awarded research scholarships that will allow them to conduct extensive research on dystonia, a neurological movement disorder, now and in 2010. Roberts is a sophomore from Huntsville majoring in chemistry and biology; Ricketts, who is a continuing Alabama Dystonia Scholar from last year, is a senior from Birmingham majoring in biological sciences.

Ken Williams of Birmingham suffers from dystonia and spearheaded the effort to provide the $20,000 given to UA for the Alabama Dystonia Scholars program.

“I first learned of the Caldwells’ research using microscopic glow worms when they spoke to a dystonia support group of which I am a volunteer director,” Williams said. “I was enamored with the short lifespan of the worm model which permits viewing three generations over a few weeks’ time.  Speeding up the research process by eliminating the lengthy time frame associated with most ‘animal’ models impressed me,” he explained.

The seed money provided for the Alabama Dystonia Scholars program has further provided student-generated preliminary data that led to a recent $760,000 CAREER grant awarded to Kim Caldwell from the National Science Foundation.

Parkinson's Association of Alabama Scholars are Mike Zhang, Paige Dexter and Susan DeLeon
Parkinson's Association of Alabama Scholars are Mike Zhang, Paige Dexter and Susan DeLeon

UA students Paige Dexter, Susan DeLeon and Mike Zhang have also been named Parkinson’s Association of Alabama Scholars.  For 2009, the PAA donated $16,000 to support the three scholars. Dexter is a sophomore from Enterprise, DeLeon is a senior from San Antonio, Texas, and Zhang is a sophomore from Tuscaloosa – all three are majoring in biology.

Parkinson’s disease is the second most common neurodegenerative disease in the United States. Ken Cater of Birmingham, the current PAA president, suffers from Parkinson’s disease and believes that the work done with the Caldwells will help inspire the next generation of scientists.

“I have had the opportunity to visit their lab and to see firsthand the groundbreaking work in progress. Guy and Kim are not only committed to their work, but equally committed to their students and teaching them the value of science to our society,” Cater said.

Research performed by the PAA scholars is serving as a primary focal point in efforts to establish a Parkinson’s research center in Alabama in collaboration with researchers at UAB and the new HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology in Huntsville, the professors note.

Guy Caldwell thanked both the donors and the students for their efforts. “These students display the creativity and dedication to finding cures for dystonia and Parkinson’s disease that I expect from my student researchers, especially those who receive generous funds raised by proactive patients and their loved ones. I could not be more pleased with their efforts in our lab thus far and see them as significant contributors for years to come,” he said.



Cara Cramer or Linda Hill, UA Media Relations, 205/348-8325 or lhill@ur.ua.edu


Dr. Guy Caldwell, 205/348-9926 or gcaldwel@bama.ua.edu