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Lyon student increases understanding of neurological disorders

A Lyon College senior is finding the links between altered neural connectivity and neurological disorders.

Luke Shackelford, ‘20, is spending his summer in the University of Chicago’s molecular genetics and cellular biology department, researching neural development and how the neuromuscular system forms.

To study this complex system, the research team is using Drosophila melanogaster, a type of common fruit fly, as its model organism. Shackelford said the project will collect data from a number of scientific approaches, among them fluorescent imagery and neuron cell cultures.

“Through using these techniques, we hope to reveal important aspects of how brain cells locate and connect with each other and with muscle cells,” he said. 

With a deeper knowledge of neural connectivity mechanisms, Shackelford said the research team hopes to increase understanding of neurological disorders that result from altered neural connectivity, including autism spectrum disorders.

He first became interested in scientific research when he joined Assistant Professor of Biology Dr. Alexander Beeser’s lab as a freshman at Lyon. Since then, Shackelford has worked in the labs of other Lyon professors and spent a summer studying brain cancer resistance at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) through the IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE).

“It has been through those experiences and relationships that I was accepted into my current program at the University of Chicago,” Shackelford said. “My research professors, as well as the Lyon Career Center, were vital in helping me identify my research interests and prepare a successful application.”

He said the liberal arts education at Lyon taught him the importance of analyzing a problem critically, which is the very heart of scientific research.

“As a biology major with a psychology minor, I have taken a variety of classes which gave me a strong foundation to join a neuroscience lab,” Shackelford said. 

“Whether it was something as simple as the structure of a neuron or as complex as the molecular mechanism that stimulates filopodia extension, my classes at Lyon have prepared me to approach a variety of neuroscience questions.”

Among the numerous benefits of research, he said building professional relationships is his favorite part.

“Working in a lab setting places you in a very close community,” Shackelford said, “where I have been able to connect with other undergraduates, Ph.D. candidates, and renowned professors.”

He said he has also formed lasting friendships with the other students in his program, discussing research proposals and exploring Chicago together.

“It is these many connections that I believe will have the most lasting impact when I leave,” Shackelford said. 

“Having grown up in rural Arkansas, this was my first opportunity to live in a large city like Chicago. From my daily view of the skyline to mastering the subway, I have gained new experiences and perspectives that I will always carry with me.”

He said he can apply his research experiences at Lyon in two areas: academics and community.

For academics, he wants to apply the information he has gained when taking upper level classes and bring some of the techniques and skills into his research projects.

“I hope to give back to the Lyon community, which has given me so much,” Shackelford said, “by encouraging other students to pursue opportunities in their fields and making myself available to answer any questions or even proofread applications.”

Participating in research has given him a huge appreciation of the people who give their lives to science and unveiling the hidden mechanisms of the world.

“It has shown me how easy it can be to take for granted the information we have access to through a quick Google search,” Shackelford said, “when in reality it likely took someone’s dedication and hard work to provide us with the knowledge we have.”

“This experience has further confirmed my love for research and my desire to pursue research opportunities after I graduate from Lyon.”