Interview with Steve Kay: How to think big and forge solutions to complex problems

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Published on: January 3, 2013

Guest post by Sandra Smieszek

It is certainly my great pleasure to introduce Professor Steve Kay, holder of the Anna H. Bing Dean’s Chair, Dean of College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, and Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Southern California Dornsife, leader, educator and innovator. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is is a renowned expert on circadian rhythms. He spent two decades identifying the photoreceptors, genes, and complex networks that make these internal clocks tick.

A transformative force in the field of molecular biology, Kay is a world expert on circadian rhythms. He spent two decades identifying the photoreceptors, genes and complex networks that make these internal clocks tick. He is perhaps best known for using blinking mustard plants and glowing fruit flies to explore the molecular genetic basis of circadian clocks in plants, flies, and mammals.

SS: What influences directed you to your specific area of research? Who influenced your scientific thinking early in your career, and how?

SK: I became interested in biology early in my childhood. It all began on the small island of Jersey, off the coast of Normandy. Many of my family members were fisherman, and I spent a lot of time on commercial boats. This exposure marine life coupled with great teachers and my first glimpse through a microscope set me on my path to becoming a scientist.

Certainly my mentors pushed me to ‘think big’. Trevor Griffiths who was my Ph.D. supervisor, introduced me to the world of plants. It was during my doctoral studies when I discovered that light regulated the expression of the gene that produced the enzyme for chlorophyll synthesis.

It was Trevor Griffiths who advised me to pursue my research in United States. That is when I started a postdoctoral fellowship at a lab of Nam-Hai Chua who focused on light dependent gene expression in plants. He certainly taught me how to approach more than one thing at a time. It was incredibly exciting to work with him on the first vectors for transgenic plants.

SS: What scientific breakthrough over the past couple of years influenced your research directions and why/how?

SK: My ‘eureka’ moment definitely came during my postdoctoral studies. Light signals change in gene expression patterns, I am thinking here particularly of chlorophyll a/b binding CAB gene. The discovery essentially showed how CAB was regulated by the circadian clock. That was in 1985 and it was the first direct evidence for the role of circadian rhythm exerting its effect at a molecular level. It was astonishing.

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