Professor Steve Kay

Doctor of Science Professor Steve Kay

Wednesday 29 January 2014 at 11.15 am - Orator: Professor Alistair Hetherington

Madam Chancellor,

Looking round the Great Hall today I wonder how many of you have flown into the UK to mark this splendid graduation at the University of Bristol?  Many of you familiar with the world of long-haul flights will also be familiar with the downside of international travel – jet lag.  The unpleasant physiological symptoms of jet lag are caused by alterations to the body’s circadian rhythms brought about by travelling across different time zones.  You arrive at Heathrow and your watch tells you that it is 7am in the morning but your body thinks it is just after midnight.  In fact circadian rhythms are good things that govern a myriad of our activities including behaviour patterns such as sleeping and biochemical responses such as the way we metabolise cholesterol. You might also be surprised to learn that we are not alone in having our lives ruled by these rhythms.  In fact circadian rhythms are equally important to the lives of plants and microbes and in evolutionary terms we think that they are ancient.

Understanding how circadian rhythms are generated and regulated has been the subject of Professor Steve Kay’s research for the past 25 years.  To understand the workings of the intricate intracellular machine, or clock, responsible for controlling these rhythms Professor Kay studies circadian phenomena in plants, humans and microbes.  Steve’s contributions to the field have been and continue to be outstanding.  His discoveries concerning the molecular components of the intracellular clock and how they work together have been truly ground-breaking.  His work is agenda setting and he is, without doubt, a titan or indeed the titan of his field.

Well, I have just made some bold statements. So let’s just pause briefly to examine the evidence supporting my contention regarding Steve’s pre-eminence in the field. He has authored over 200 scientific papers, of which a truly remarkable 40 are in premier league scientific journals such as Science and Nature.  In fact Science magazine has categorised the results of his research as “scientific breakthrough of the year” on three separate occasions.  These are outstanding achievements.  As you might imagine he has been the recipient of numerous awards and honours.  Let me highlight one of these; in 2008 he was elected as a member of the highly prestigious National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

So where did this glittering career start?  To answer this question we have to visit the Channel Islands, or to be more specific, Jersey, because it was there that Steve grew up.  Living by the sea he became fascinated by the seashore and particularly the animals and plants exposed at low tide.  He describes how, at the age of about nine, his life changed when a teacher brought a microscope into his school and he distinctly remembers being “blown away” by this vision of a new and previously unimagined world.  Given this early introduction to Biology it is perhaps no surprise to learn that Steve chose to come here, to the University of Bristol, to study Biochemistry.  He clearly found it a rewarding and enjoyable experience because he decided to remain in the Biochemistry Department and carry out PhD research under the supervision of Dr Trevor Griffiths.  This research marked the start of his fascination with circadian phenomena. Steve found that the concentration of an enzyme involved in the synthesis of the photosynthetic pigment chlorophyll went up and down during the day night cycle.  After Bristol he moved to the Rockefeller University in New York where he invented ground-breaking techniques that allowed him to make a series of fundamental discoveries into how the cellular clock works.  These of course were the subject of Science magazine’s “Breakthrough of the year awards”.

Professor Kay is also passionate about education and educating.  Now the word passionate has become hackneyed through massive overuse in recent years – for example “I am passionate about the extra virgin olive oil I drizzle over my rocket salad”.  If we consult the Oxford English Dictionary we find the following definitions for passionate, “ardently enthusiastic” or “zealously devoted”.  Professor Kay is passionate, in the true sense of the word, about education and educating. And here is the evidence to support this contention.   A few years ago Professor Kay held an extremely prestigious position at the Scripps Institute in San Diego.  Yet he decided to move to the University of California San Diego (UCSD).  Now The Scripps is a private foundation and it is probably fair to say that funds are not the limiting factor when it comes to doing research.  So, for a highly creative scientist like Steve this should have been a perfect long term home.  So why did he leave Scripps?  The answer is that UCSD provided the stage, including outstanding undergraduates and top-class outreach facilities, which are essential both for training the next generation of scientists and educating the public about science. To quote Steve, “It’s never been a more exciting time to be a biologist, we are in such an incredible era of understanding the beauty of how cells work. But there is a responsibility.  The more we learn, the better we’re going to have to be at transmitting what we’re learning to the general public”.  Indeed in pursuit of this very objective Steve recently moved to the University of Southern California where he is Dean of the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Drawing these threads together, in Professor Steve Kay we have one of the most outstanding biological scientists of his generation. He is a man who is genuinely passionate about his research and passionate about education and educating.

Madam Chancellor, I present to you Steve Anthony Kay as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa.


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