Profile of Lewis Kay
Dr. Lewis Kay, PhD
- Senior Scientist, Molecular Medicine
- Professor, Department of Molecular Genetics, University of Toronto
1. Where are you from and where did you study?
Originally, I’m from Edmonton, Alberta. I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Alberta in biochemistry, and my PhD was at Yale University in physical chemistry and biophysics. I did my post-doctoral work in a chemical physics lab at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.
2. What are you researching right now?
Our research interests in the lab are at the interface of biochemistry and physics in a discipline which is broadly called biophysics. In general we work with biomolecules, but our particular interest is in the protein area. We work on the development of a technology called nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, to improve on how we are able to look at the structures and interactions of protein molecules. Using these techniques we are able to capture structural information, but even more importantly, we are learning how the structure changes as a function of time through molecular dynamics, which allow different protein components to interact with one another in ways that are responsible for function and sometimes also for misfunction.
What we would like to be able to do with NMR, for example, is take a model of a protein, see how it changes and the ways that it changes to elicit a particular function – through the binding of other molecules, adapters or small molecules or through mutations that may cause it to adopt other functions. We’d like to be able to know at a molecular level, what is actually going on. So we use NMR spectroscopy. But because some of the systems that we want to study tend to be very large as far as molecules go, we have to develop the technologies to do so. The biochemistry dictates the sorts of problems we’re interested in but the problems then dictate the kinds of physics that we have to develop to be able to address the problems in the first place.
3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist, and why?
I don’t know if I have an all-time favourite scientist. I have a number of scientists that I admire. One of them would be Dr. Alex Pines, who’s really a superb physical chemist at the University of California-Berkeley. Pines has developed many of the modern NMR techniques for studying systems in the solid state, but he’s gone way beyond that to really look at imaging. His ideas permeate the field — not only the NMR field, but also the physical chemistry field. He also gives amazing lectures. He is a brilliant communicator of information, and I think I admire him at least as much for the way that he is able to transmit ideas, which I think is absolutely critical for scientists.
Another one is Dr. Art [Arthur] Horwich at Yale University. Art does experiments with his own hands. He’s always done experiments with his own hands, even now at over 60 years of age. We collaborated, and he came up to Toronto and actually physically immersed himself in the lab and did experiments. Then we took his samples that he made and raced to the NMR to do measurements. He would definitely be an example of someone that I try to emulate in terms of my involvement in the day-to-day science. I also admire family members. For example, my wife, Dr. Julie Forman-Kay — who is also a scientist, because she is able to find the right balance between family and science. She also plays a pretty important role in helping other people: she’s a Program Head at SickKids. Also my father who is a professor emeritus at the University of Alberta.
4. What in your opinion is the single most important scientific breakthrough, and why?
I think the scientific breakthrough that I find really neat is in the area of physics and in the development of quantum mechanics, which is basically, the fundamental theory of nature at small scales and low energies of atoms and subatomic particles. In part, because what I do as an NMR spectroscopist has its underpinnings in quantum mechanics and also because it’s a beautiful theory and a rich theory that is able to explain so many different phenomena. It is a wonderful example of what a group of people coming together —all at the same time, in a relatively short period of time — can accomplish. We are seen the revolution now in the biology sciences, much like there was with the physical sciences of 100 years ago. I think the physics, the cleanliness of the equations and the predictability is something is that I have always greatly admired. That would have to go down as one of my favorite discoveries.
5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
I walk my dog a lot. I have an Alaskan malamute that takes up a lot of time. She gets a lot of attention, which means that I do to. I enjoyed watching my son play basketball back in the day when he played a lot of basketball. I also enjoy exercise, like swimming and walking. Watching sports is another interest of mine; I’m an avid Edmonton Oilers hockey fan. But certainly, there’s not a lot of time to pursue outside interests when you’re so involved and committed to your own day job.
6. Why science?
I was always fascinated by mathematics and that led naturally into the physical sciences: math and chemistry and physics. I probably would have ended up a physicist if I thought that I could have contributed at a high level to that discipline. It just seemed to me that a lot of the big discoveries had already been made in physics, and biophysics still had the rigor of physics coupled with the potential to explore what seemed to be like an unending universe of problems of a biological nature. Science was always clear-cut. I liked math and I liked thinking about problems in an analytical way, so it just seemed a natural thing.
7. Why SickKids?
I’m status-only at SickKids. I’m actually appointed at U of T, but I share wet lab space with my wife, so a lot of my post-docs go over to SickKids just to make samples. So ultimately what drew me to SickKids was the laboratory facilities, but I think that the Molecular Medicine Program that I’m affiliated with has a lot of like-minded people in terms of interest in basic science and using physical techniques to get at a fundamental question. I think it was the opportunity to interact with like-minded people who share common research interests.
8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
I would say that it’s clear that the dynamics of biomolecules are important. What’s less clear is how they are important and how we can target them to regulate biological function. I’m not sure I would call that controversial, but I would say that’s an open-ended question that I think for the field of NMR spectroscopy in particular we have to be able to address, given the emergence of other structural techniques. NMR has to continue to evolve and find a niche for itself, sort of a good place for itself in the general spectrum of tools that are available to biophysicists studying the sorts of problems that I do.
9. What are you reading right now?
I read a lot of John Grisham titles just to take me away from the pressures of academic life. I also read Hebrew newspapers to keep up on my Hebrew.
10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
Work really hard and follow your own nose. Don’t let other people tell you how it should be done, or what should be done or if it should be done. Decide for yourself and go after it. Choose the hardest problems that you can and the toughest course that will prepare you to be able to tackle those problems. And if you are really bright, come do a PhD with me!