Nominata Award winner made snap decision from gridiron to laboratory

By Aline McKenzie 

Dr. Courtney Karner started his science education in an Oklahoma cotton field and broadened it because of a football field.

As the son of the state entomologist, he learned how insects, plants, weather and other factors combine to make an overall environmental system.

Dr. Courtney Karner

At East Central University in Ada, Okla., he played football on a five-year degree plan, which allowed him an extra year to supplement his degree in biology with a variety of classes in math, chemistry and other disciplines.

“I think a broad education is better preparation,” Dr. Karner said. “Some of my classmates with more specialized backgrounds were really good in one area but struggled in others. I never felt that way.”

As a graduate student at UT Southwestern, he quickly became a specialist, overturning current thought about how a signaling molecule regulates kidney development.

His achievements have won Dr. Karner the 2010 Nominata Award — the highest honor bestowed on a student by the
UT Southwestern Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.

The award recognizes academic excellence and research achievement at
UT Southwestern. The prize consists of a $2,000 award and the honor of presenting the final seminar of the University Lecture Series for the academic year. Dr. Karner’s lecture was titled “Canonical and Non-canonical Wnt9b Signaling Regulates Kidney Progenitor Expansion, Differentiation and Tubule Morphogenesis.”

He now is doing postdoctoral research at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

Dr. Karner grew up in Altus, Okla., and earned his bachelor’s degree in biology at East Central, where he was a Top 10 graduating senior. He played offensive tackle on the football team and was named an academic All-American his senior year. He also received the Lone Star Conference Male Scholar Athlete Award in 2004.

His academic work won him the Tri-Beta Biological Honor Society’s Frank G. Brooks Award for excellence in undergraduate research.

“His intellectual curiosity, his work ethic and his excitement about science set him apart,” said his graduate mentor, Dr. Thomas Carroll, assistant professor of internal medicine and molecular biology. “He was completely fearless about tackling a new technique or idea, and it was so much fun to have back-and-forth conversations about his research.”

Dr. Karner is a member of the Society of Developmental Biology, Tri-Beta — Psi Delta Chapter, and Alpha Chi, and he’s down to 275 pounds from his college playing weight of 295.

He studied how a molecule called Wnt9b regulates kidney development in embryos. “His findings should have significant impact on scientists’ attempts to engineer new kidney tissue to supplement damaged organs, and on understanding polycystic kidney disease, one of the most common inherited disorders in the world,” Dr. Carroll said.