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.

SS: What was the most difficult stage in your career?

SK: I had several, science is really challenging – long periods of failure with splices of success. For example, cloning the TOC1 gene took us 5 years (published in Science in 1995) and it took many more years for us to elucidate what the gene does.

SS: What recent developments in basic plant science are influencing policy-making bodies today?

SK: I think it varies a lot by region. It is often difficult to make a convincing case that funding research to gain knowledge in reference species is still valid and crucial. Overall less than 1% of general funding goes to plant science versus around 30% in China and 20% Europe. I would like to draw attention to and call for appreciation of the critical role robust funding has for the basic sciences as this will lay the foundation for improvements in health, agriculture and the environment.

SS: What advice would you give to a student interested in plant biology today?

SK: To be concerned wide and go deep.

SS: As an employer, what are the five key qualities you look for in a potential team member?

SK: Passion, effort, intellectual capability, discipline and horsepower.

SS: “The challenge for biologists is to become comfortable with mathematical tools.” [Kay, in a Q&A for UC San Diego] Could you elaborate?

SK: Of course, beautiful examples of what can be done specifically in our domain come from Andrew Millar. Nowadays it is extremely important for biologists to be comfortable with mathematical tools. At the same time we have to be comfortable with biology becoming a predictive science.  I believe that systems biology will be furthered by the fusion of both bottom-up approaches and painstakingly crafted models.

SS: “I’ve watched agog as the word MOOC has proliferated and spiraled into the higher education buzzword of the year.” [Bonnie Stewart, via the Guardian] Speaking of the new wave of educators what is Your stand on the evolution of coursera?

It is fantastic, yet it will never be a replacement. As useful as it can be it is superficial at the same time. I have a direct example coming from John Hogenesch who runs one of these classes ( The numbers are astonishing: 10,000 people enrolled; 4400 participated; and 822 took exam; versus numbers that come to class that range in the 20s. Yet looking at the numbers, it seems these are professionals that participate.

SS: With genomics monopolizing attention, what do you think is the next buzz domain that will take over in the years to come?

SK: I think high throughput sequencing in all shapes and sizes, together with posttranslational studies will keep us busy in the coming years.

SS: “Reductionism, as a paradigm, is expired, and complexity, as a field, is tired. Data-based mathematical models of complex systems are offering a fresh perspective, rapidly developing into a new discipline: network science.” [Barabási, 2012] What can network science do for plant biology in reality?

SK: That is the way to go, and I am all for these studies – as long as they complement physical research. Moreover there is true potential in the study of the dynamics of biological systems, like that done by Trey Ideker. This, coupled with the wealth of high throughout data, is truly exciting.

SS: Who should and will fund future molecular biology research? What is the interaction between government funding/private, commercial/charitable donations?

SK: That varies between regions and projects so it is difficult to elaborate.

SS: You once made a comment about genome sequencing: It’s comparable to Darwin’s theory of evolution.” Do you agree with that now?

SK: Certainly, it is a massive revelation. Nevertheless it is complementary. It is variation beyond the nucleotide that constitutes lots of the present conundrums that one has to focus on.

SS: On a lighter note, what is your favorite book?

SK: ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ By Philip K. Dick.

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