Many hats · Steve Kay speaks with a researcher in the Kay Lab, which he led in addition to his responsibilities as dean. – Photo courtesy of Max S. GerberNestled in the Temporary Research Facility in the northwest corner of campus, the Kay Lab with its greenhouses and pipetting stations is a world apart from the stately interior of Bovard Auditorium. But Steve Kay, outgoing dean of the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, has comfortably moved between the two for the last three years, swapping his jacket for a lab coat.On Monday, Kay left USC to assume his new role as president of The Scripps Research Institute in San Diego. Dornsife executive vice dean Dani Byrd will become interim dean on Tuesday.“Leading with enthusiasm and dedication, Dean Kay ensured the continued excellence of our institution’s oldest and most diverse academic unit over his three-year tenure,” Provost Michael Quick said in a statement on Sept. 18 when the announcement was made. “He leaves USC in a stronger position to solve some of society’s most challenging problems that ultimately serve the global public good.”Kay’s journey to USC took him across the Atlantic from his childhood home in the Isle of Jersey, off the coast of Normandy, France. His father, a retired electrical contractor, and his mother, who worked in a knitwear factory, never finished high school. His grandfather was a commercial lobster fisherman. Kay said his teachers nurtured his interest in science.“Certainly there was a connection to biology through where I grew up, a small island in a massive tidal zone, but really it was teachers, and it was teachers who had a passion for their students,” Kay said.Kay is a prolific researcher and a pioneer in the field of circadian rhythms, biological processes in plants and animals that follow a day-night cycle. In addition to his responsibilities as dean, he heads the Kay Lab, which focuses on understanding circadian rhythms at the molecular level.“He’s really supportive, he’s really pushing us to think in an innovative way, pushing the limits, and I think that’s inspiring,” said Sabrina Sanchez, a post-doctoral fellow who joined the Kay Lab in 2013.Kay said that his role at TSRI will give him the opportunity to pursue translational research and drug discovery, both of which he has a keen interest in. Personal factors also played a role in the decision — he has young children who live in San Diego — but Kay said the decision was an agonizing one, taken in consultation with mentors removed from both Scripps and USC.“What’s attracted me about returning to Scripps is there’s a real opportunity to participate in changing something that I’ve had a lifelong passion about, and that is right in my sweet spot as a scientist,” he said.Kay said he will be working to address the unmet needs created by the market-driven pharmaceutical industry, helping to develop new, cost-effective treatments for patients in the nonprofit sector. One of his biggest challenges will be to make the institute more independent of funding from the National Institutes of Health, the primary source of federal research dollars, which he said “waxes and wanes” depending on the state of the economy.“These things just don’t come along very often, and if you let them go, I was concerned that I’d have spent quite a bit of the rest of my life wondering, what if?” Kay said.Kay began his tenure as dean of Dornsife in 2012 after serving as the dean of the division of biological sciences and the Richard C. Atkinson Chair in biological sciences at the University of California, San Diego. Kay said he was attracted by the “fierceness of the leadership” at USC, including then-Executive Vice Provost Quick, then-Provost Elizabeth Garrett and President C. L. Max Nikias.“I wanted to come to a university that I saw was really on the move,” he said.Kay said that balancing his responsibilities as dean with his role as a researcher was challenging, but also gave him unique perspective.“Being an active researcher gives you credibility with the faculty,” he said. “I was up ’til two in the morning last night finishing an NIH grant application, just like any of the other faculty members were.”Kay spoke about some of the initiatives he was most proud of during his time at USC, including the expansion of the quantitative social sciences centered in Dauterive Hall. He mentioned the creation of new majors for Dornsife students including international relations (global business) and geodesign, as well as new chemistry teaching labs for undergraduates.Kay also noted his efforts to assist students in pre-med and pre-health tracks including preparation for the new MCAT and other programs for students interested in the health sciences. He pushed for the creation of scholarships to help students participate in co-curricular activities such as Problems Without Passports and summer research.“Overall, I’m really proud of how, in general, we’ve massively raised the profile of USC Dornsife,” Kay said. “We’re more visible, I think, than when I came here.”Kay described his guiding philosophy as dean of the University’s largest academic division.“It has to be an unwavering commitment to academic rigor and quality in the faculty because that is the core body by which we are able to deliver our mission,” he said.That mission, Kay said, involves the creation and transmission of knowledge through research and teaching, as well as the translation of knowledge for public benefit.“That could be a drug that comes out of a lab, it could be a policy that comes out of a paper, it could be an understanding of social injustice and its role in the economy,” he said.Kay emphasized that becoming dean was not merely the next rung on the academic ladder, but a commitment to serve.“You have to have that humility and as I close that door late at night each day when I leave here, I try to remember that, who am I going to serve tomorrow,” he said.Kay said that the most exciting yet difficult part of his job was the “massive depth and breadth” of Dornsife.“It’s this exhilaration to be talking with somebody who is bridging philosophy and physics, you know, really looking at the edges of our understanding of the universe and what it actually means to ponder to be human or to ponder religious experience when you’re thinking about the weird physics that happens at the very edge of the universe,” he said.That interdisciplinary nature of Dornsife, Kay said, also makes it difficult for the college to have a clear identity.“Dornsife’s challenge is we’re a hairball. In the modern world of networks and connectivity, we’re this massive hairball — we’re both nowhere on campus and we’re all over the campus,” he said.Kay said a big challenge for his successor will be making sure that the research efforts of the University are coupled with the course curriculum. He said another challenge for the next dean will be to continue to articulate the value of foundational degrees in the liberal arts during a time when that value is constantly questioned.“Our students are pounded with, quite frankly, misinformation about what a liberal arts degree gets you, and I think we have to constantly be data-driven and calm and informed about helping our students understand that a degree in narrative writing, a degree in art history, a degree in psychology, all of these amazing educational experiences that we have at Dornsife provide you a platform to be adaptable and critical and synthetic,” he said.Kay’s parting advice to students was to engage with faculty and seek out opportunities both within Dornsife and USC. Though he is staying on as an adjunct faculty member and adviser to the provost, he said he will miss the school spirit of USC and is leaving laden with items from the bookstore.“Before I came here I might have made the mistake of thinking that the Trojan Family had to include a helmet and pads, and I love the team, but I’ve really learned that the Trojan Family is much, much more than that,” he said.
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