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Fostering Intellectual Courage

Meet Steve Kay, the 21st dean of USC Dornsife, and learn more about his aspirations for our scholarly community.

By Emily Cavalcanti
November 8, 2012


Dean Steve Kay
Video by Mira Zimet

Steve Kay awoke his first morning on the island of Manhattan feeling jet lagged, invigorated and hungry.

The new postdoctoral fellow at The Rockefeller University headed to the cafeteria for breakfast. As he surveyed the dining hall, he found just one other person there — Nobel Laureate Fritz Lipmann.

Taking a seat next to the legendary figure credited with ushering in a golden age of research in biochemistry, Kay began to stir his coffee as Lipmann turned and smiled.

He looked Kay in the eye, knowing it was likely his first day at Rockefeller, and said, “Whatever you do here, however much you engage your research topic, make sure it’s something big.”

Kay never forgot those words.

“We’re not on this Earth long enough to just take incremental steps,” said Kay, a member of the National Academy of Sciences. “The age of discovery is upon us, whether it’s in the library, whether it’s in the lab, whether it’s in the community. We have incredible opportunities for all of us — students, faculty, staff, the entire Trojan Family — to make big differences right now.”

As the 21st dean of USC Dornsife, Kay believes there is no greater agent for change than education.

“Education is tightly linked to the development of human capital — be it bringing solutions to poverty, to environmental degradation, to health issues,” Kay said. “Putting paint on a canvas, creating computer animation, developing a cure for cancer, that creative instinct is something the world needs; it’s at the heart of generating solutions to every major challenge we face.

“At USC Dornsife, we will continue to cherish the transformative power of education and push forward as the work of our great university has a lasting impact on the planet.”

And Kay knows what it takes to make such an impact. One of the world’s top experts on genes and circadian rhythms, the molecular biologist has published more than 200 papers and has been cited in Science magazine’s “Breakthroughs of the Year” three times since 1997.

Kay’s research has contributed significantly to the understanding of the genetic basis for circadian rhythms, which serve as the body’s clock for timing the day-night cycle. By identifying and cloning “clock genes” or pieces of DNA that encode proteins that maintain 24-hour activity of an organism’s behavior, physiology and metabolism, Kay and his fellow researchers have developed a novel way to look at a biological clock’s molecular components.

“I still remember sitting next to graduate student Andrew Millar as we watched images of these plants glowing on the computer screen,” Kay said. “There, right in front of us, we created something new in nature: a rhythmical, bioluminescent organism that we were going to use to make fundamental discoveries in science.

“We had developed a tool that would allow us to look inside a plant cell and understand exactly how its biological clock was made and how that biological clock would be useful for us, for example, in agriculture.”

Kay later found that tinkering with the biological clock of plants such as corn and soybean can increase their biomass and yield, which may prove useful in boosting the production of biofuels and other types of bio products.

Kay’s group and others have also explored the ties between circadian rhythms and the body’s metabolism, helping to explain why night-shift workers, frequent travelers and others with disrupted circadian rhythms appear more prone to metabolic disorders. This investigation has led his team to discover a chemical that regulates our biological clock that in turn could be used to develop completely new drugs to treat metabolic disorders such as type 2 diabetes.

At USC Dornsife, Kay continues to run an active research lab, which he considers critical to his role as dean.

“Maintaining my scholarship, continuing to be an active researcher, reminds me on a daily basis of what we really need to accomplish in terms of discovery-based learning for our undergraduate and graduate students as well as the support necessary to sustain the groundbreaking work of our stellar faculty.”

Previously balancing his laboratory research with his role as dean of biological sciences at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), Kay led a large and dynamic academic division, with nearly 6,000 undergraduate biology majors, several hundred graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, and faculty spanning four major departments.

Under his leadership, UCSD’s Division of Biological Sciences developed new scholarships for undergraduate researchers, expanded and improved laboratory research opportunities for students, strengthened peer mentoring for incoming doctoral students, established a new divisional diversity committee, and launched workshops for teaching assistants and postdoctoral trainees related to cultural inclusion and equity. Kay also recruited top faculty members to the division and created four significant new research centers spanning biomedical to environmental sciences.

Prior to joining UCSD, Kay held faculty positions at The Rockefeller University, University of Virginia and The Scripps Research Institute, and served as the director of discovery research at the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation. Kay, a native of the small island of Jersey in the United Kingdom, earned his bachelor and doctoral degrees from the University of Bristol.

While an undergraduate at Bristol, Kay fondly recalls sneaking out of a thermodynamics class and slipping into the back row of a mathematical philosophy class as he explored his wide-ranging interests. Near the end of his undergraduate days, he met professor Trevor Griffiths, who enthusiastically persuaded Kay to take a leap and join his research team as a doctoral student.

Griffiths would become one of several influential mentors throughout Kay’s career to guide him toward what he calls intellectual courage.

“Very often, regardless of the fields we’re in, we can see the next step,” Kay said. “But what I mean by intellectual courage is, don’t take that logical next step. Instead seek out answers in new places. We need to engage our fields with fresh approaches, and not just add to knowledge in an incremental way, but to synthesize from those topics and move orthogonally toward making a real difference.”

At USC Dornsife, Kay seeks to foster an environment where great scholarship has no borders.

“As dean I will encourage our faculty to explore never-before-conceived connections between their disciplines and our students to embrace the entrepreneurial spirit that is at the heart of USC Dornsife so they can emerge as their generation’s critical thinkers and leaders.”

Read more articles from the Fall 2012/Winter 2013 issue of USC Dornsife Magazine