This month’s Faculty Spotlight highlights Dr. Steve Lockless ’97. A former Aggie (Molecular and Cell Biology) and current Associate Professor in the Department of Biology, Dr. Lockless uses bacterial tetrameric cation channels as a model to study how biological systems are built to efficiently propagate signals.
Steve Lockless was the first in his family to attend college and received his BS degree in Molecular and Cellular Biology from Texas A&M in 1997. He continued on to earn a PhD in Molecular Biophysics from UT Southwestern Medical School in Dallas with Dr. Rama Ranganathan, where he first developed an interest in how the proteins evolved to carry out specific functions. From there he completed two post-doctoral positions with Drs. Roderick MacKinnon and Tom Muir at The Rockefeller University in New York City. Steve re-joined the Department of Biology as an Assistant Professor in 2009 and was promoted to Associate Professor with tenure in 2016.
Describe your current line of research.
I’m interested in how biological systems are built to efficiently propagate signals, both between amino acids within proteins and between proteins within cells. We use bacterial tetrameric cation channels as a model system. These channels are similar to those found in neurons and muscle cells, where they have been extensively studied. We recently began to ask the role of these channels in microorganisms, where very little is known about their physiological importance.
Faced with many competing demands on your time, how do you determine your priorities in the teaching, research, and service mix?
Teaching focuses on what we know, while research focuses on what we don’t yet know. I’m fortunate to enjoy both and have not felt a direct competition. In fact, I find that aspects of each cross-feed one another. For example, I learned a great deal about the electron transport chain in order to teach my Molecular & Cell Biology class. Then when my research program took an unexpected turn directly into this process, what I had been teaching became the framework to fit parts of my new research program into. And now my research is influencing how I teach this class.
If you had the power to effect one major change in the education of graduate students, what would that change be and how would you go about effecting that change?
The overall quality and motivation of graduate students defines the success of a graduate program and the education they receive in it. So maximizing both is the most logical goal. In my opinion, selecting and nurturing students with a broad interest in all aspects of the world around them is key; this curiosity is innate and easily seen in young children, but can be lost as we grow older. The next step is helping them learn to identify which problems are most worth solving, and cultivating broad interests in the workings of the natural world provides them with the best foundations for this. Rarely have profound problems been solved because someone focused exclusively on a narrow domain of science.
How has Texas A&M University changed since you were an undergraduate student here? How has it remained the same?
The biggest change is probably the number of people on campus, which has altered some of the intimate, anything-is-possible feeling I remember. The A&M traditions are largely the same, which provides continuity and a sense of community across generations. However, the focus and perspective of an undergraduate student and a faculty member are different, especially when 20 years have elapsed between the two.
You graduated from A&M with a BS in Molecular and Cell Biology. Was there a professor during your undergraduate tenure that might have influenced/inspired you to pursue your studies and eventually choose a career in academia?
The old adage “It takes a village to raise a child” is true for scientists as well. When I was an undergrad, Drs. Terry Thomas and Craig Nessler were among those that prodded me in the right direction when they’d see me stray off course; however, Drs. Tom McKnight and Helmut Sauer had the largest influence by far. Helmut’s love of biological patterns and developmental ‘algorithms’ sparked an interest that I’m only now pursuing 20 years later in our studies of bacterial growth patterns. And Tom took me into his lab as a naïve freshman, showed me the difference between research and classes, and encouraged and supported me in my desire to pursue a PhD. My undergrad grades were average
and I suspect that their support was the primary reason I was accepted into a top graduate program.
What do you consider your most profound reason for wanting to join the faculty in the biology department at A&M?
I was attracted to the unique diversity of research interests under one departmental umbrella. The juxtaposition of fields such as cell biology, developmental biology, evolutionary biology, microbiology, and neurobiology was and still is exciting.
What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
Had I not been accepted into the graduate school I applied to, my default plan was waiting tables until I became a chef at a restaurant. Great chefs experiment with ingredients (reagents) and processes (protocols) to find new and unexpected flavor/texture combinations that elicit specific neuronal responses from the palate. So, one could say that chefs are experimental neurobiologists that don’t require Institutional Review Board approval for their experiments.