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Sandy Journal

Sandy professor wins national award for her research on epilepsy

Feb 03, 2021 10:56AM ● By Justin Adams

Karen S. Wilcox wins the national Founders Award from the American Epilepsy Society for her lifetime contributions in epilepsy research. She is currently a professor and chair of the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Utah. (Photo provided by Karen S. Wilcox)

By Stephanie DeGraw | [email protected]

Epilepsy is more prevalent than people realize, according to a Sandy resident who received the Founders Award from the American Epilepsy Society (AES). Karen S. Wilcox is professor and chair of the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Utah.

"I think one thing people don't realize is how common epilepsy is. One in 26 people will develop epilepsy in their lifetime, and nearly 65 million people worldwide have epilepsy," Wilcox said.  

The Founders Award, established in 1966, recognizes members who have a record of lifetime contributions related to epilepsy. The AES Lennox and Lombroso Trust funded the award. Wilcox is one of the nine epilepsy scientists in the country awarded a grant from one of the largest nongovernmental funders for epilepsy research. She was featured at the American Epilepsy Society's AES2020, an all-new virtual gathering offering extensive education and scientific exchange in the field for epilepsy professionals. 

"It is an honor to work with the talented volunteers at AES on many different committees as we strive to achieve the mission of the organization,” Wilcox said. "The mission of the American Epilepsy Society is to advance research and education for professionals dedicated to the prevention, treatment, and cure of epilepsy."

Wilcox's goal for her research is to improve patients' lives with epilepsy by understanding the basic mechanisms underlying epilepsy and the development of innovative therapies. She is the Richard L. Stimson Presidential Professor and chair of the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology. She is also the Director of the contract site of the internationally recognized National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). They provide funding for the contract at the University of Utah for the Epilepsy Therapy Screening Program. 

"One way to help people with epilepsy is to learn about epilepsy. Learn about different seizure types and learn basic first aid for someone who is having a seizure. The Epilepsy Foundation of Utah is a great resource," Wilcox said. 

She became interested in medicine while doing neuroscience research in college. Then she worked for the DuPont company in their life science primary science division. After working in a laboratory setting, Wilcox attended graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned a Ph.D. in physiology.

Wilcox became focused on the study of epilepsy due in part to her graduate school advisor, Dr. Marc Dichter. He was the Director of the University of Pennsylvania's Comprehensive Epilepsy Center. 

"As he cared for people with epilepsy in the clinic, he researched basic mechanisms of the function of neurons in his laboratory. Then he could better understand the mechanisms underlying seizures," she said. "It was in his laboratory I developed a strong interest in also trying to understand the mechanisms underlying seizures." 

Many people with epilepsy can have their seizures controlled with available antiseizure drugs. Wilcox noted, "In Utah, we are lucky to have both an adult and pediatric comprehensive epilepsy center. Working with neurologists who are specialists in epilepsy, (epileptologists) can help people manage their epilepsy."

Alternative approaches and therapies are being worked on across the country to help those people with epilepsy. But some people do not have their seizures adequately controlled by existing drugs. "The revolution in genetics has discovered that different mutations can lead to epilepsy. These findings can help tailor therapies for people with specific mutations," Wilcox said. 

Wilcox is a past board member of the American Society of Epilepsy and continues as an active volunteer with the Society. She is a past recipient of the Lombroso Lecture Award. She has served in leadership positions as co-chair of the Gender Diversity Task Force, co-chair of the Fellows/Jr. Investigators Professional Development Committee, member of the Nominating Committee, and more than a dozen councils and committees over the last 20 years. 

Wilcox is a member of several editorial review boards and has served as an ad hoc reviewer for journals in many areas, including pharmacology, neuroscience and epilepsy. She also received an NINDS Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award. 

Wilcox grew up in New Milford, a small town in northern New Jersey. She received a bachelor's degree in psychology from Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and a Ph.D. in physiology from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She landed in Utah when her husband was recruited as the vice president of operations for a scientific information company. Wilcox has been at the University of Utah since September 1998. She has two grown daughters, and her family has been incredibly supportive of her research career. 

The American Epilepsy Society Founded in 1946, the American Epilepsy Society (AES) is a medical and scientific society dedicated to advancing research and education for preventing, treating and curing epilepsy. AES includes professionals from academia, private practice, not-for-profit, government, and industry who can learn, share and grow in their mission to eradicate epilepsy and its consequences. For more information, visit the American Epilepsy Society online at