25 Years of the Kay Laboratory (1989–2014)
BY PRATEEK TRIPATHI
ASPB Student Ambassador, University of Southern California
“The greatest thing of the past 25 years was the absolute privilege to know my present and past lab members. These people are good human beings: smart, funny, weird, goofy, tall, short…such a diverse group of uniformly intelligent men and women. Most of all, I just enjoyed the company of people of this caliber, and to see them go on and thrive is the greatest joy of all.”
—Dr. Steve A Kay
Dean, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences
The Kay Symposium was celebrated May 30, 2014, honoring Steve Kay’s 25 years of successful chronobiology research. The silver jubilee of the Kay Laboratory was hosted at University Park Campus, University of Southern California, Los Angeles. This one-day event of scientific talks covered the past, present, and future of chronobiology research across disciplines. Steve’s research has focused on plants, flies, and mammals. He started his lab in 1989 at Rockefeller University, and since then he has pioneered many groundbreaking discoveries in circadian biology. Apart from great discoveries, another significant contribution of his research over the past 25 years has been providing successful mentorships. The people trained in his lab are successful scientists in their independent capacities, who are now committed to passing the baton of scientific learning to the coming generation. Eminent guests of the symposium included Joanne Chory, Joe Ecker, Elliot Meyerowitz, Susan Golden, John Mullet, Frank Doyle III, and Peter Schultz.
The guests and speakers gathered from across the world to congratulate Steve for his successful journey. His lab alumni didn’t hesitate to carve time from their busy schedules to attend this special occasion. From his first graduate student and postdoc to present lab members, they gathered together to make the event remarkable.
I asked Steve what drives him in the field of chronobiology. Being nostalgic, he shared memories of his undergraduate years when his professor, Dr. Trevor Griffiths at the University of Bristol, asked him to investigate how light influences the developmental processes of plants. He recalls that in those days he never realized the dynamics with which plants modulate these developmental phenomena. This sparked his interest, and he was curious to answer the question.
I asked Steve what he thought would be the next big thing in plant biology. He replied, “Well, the next big thing is deep versus wide.” In his view, we should be very clear where we need to go deep and where we need to go wide. He firmly believes that since we don’t have the legacy of multiple models organisms/species in plant biology, we still should go deeper to harness our only reference, Arabidopsis. In his opinion, we are still struggling to solve the enigma of plant cellular dynamics. In our hunger to translate our current understanding, we must rethink where we need to go deep and where we need to go wide. He recalls the legendary example of the CO-FT module describing flowering mechanism (which came from his lab): “Today, the CO-FT module is active to all crop and noncrop plants and species, which was first described in Arabidopsis. In order to link the phenotype to genotype with understanding of detailed dynamics, we still need to persevere and still need to
drill down the model plant system. We need to agree to focus on a developing knowledge base that will help us quickly determine the low-hanging fruit that we get by doing deep sequencing that gives various levels of omics information. So, the problem is that there is a temptation to abandon the in-depth hypothesis-driven knowledge base. Thus, it is time for all of us to raise our voices unequivocally for more investment in basic science research.”
When asked for a message to the incoming generation of researchers, Steve summarized the present situation about extended learning with high expectations and decreasing opportunities. Thus, the most competitive postdocs should integrate different approaches, develop deep knowledge, and show core skill sets. “You have to be a Renaissance man or woman,” he remarked. He also advocated the idea of training grad students and postdocs beyond scientific learning and publishing good papers—by equipping them with skills that prepare them to be adaptable.