As a young undergrad studying honours biochemistry at the University of Alberta in the 1980s, Lewis Kay had little idea where his career would eventually take him. What he did recognize was that he was engaged in his life passion with mentors he both trusted and respected. Now more than two decades later, the alumnus stands at the pinnacle of his chosen field having been named a Canada Gairdner International Award laureate. The Gairdner Award–Canada’s highest prize for medical science–is often a forerunner to the Nobel Prize.
“I’m the product of a family that always valued education and I was able to work with the leading luminaries in my field from my early days as an undergraduate, and continued being able to do so right through all of my training,” says Kay, now a professor of Chemistry, Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics at the University of Toronto.
“I don’t think my abilities are exceptional. I think what has helped separate me is my training, which was exceptional. When I got to graduate studies at Yale, I was shocked at my level in relation to my peers, who were equally smart if not smarter, but simply didn’t have the education that I did. I was ahead of them by years, simply because I went to the University of Alberta and I was trained and exposed to areas that I wouldn’t have been otherwise.”
Kay’s journey began with earning a degree from the U of A’s Faculty of Science and has led to groundbreaking work in the area of biophysics—significantly advancing the field of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy by developing methods to visualize protein molecules in their natural environment and track them as they shift and change shape. These methods have shed light on the flexible nature of molecules and how they can form abnormal structures that ultimately lead to diseased states.
It is believed the findings will help pave the way for improved drug targeting. Kay’s open-source approach to research has also allowed hundreds of scientists in academia and industry to use NMR methods developed by his team.
“Having people emulate what I do, take my methods and use them in their own research is probably the best form of flattery that I can get,” says Kay. “It’s a tremendous feeling.”
Despite the passage of decades, Kay’s ties to the University of Alberta remain strong. He is still described as a “favourite son” of the University of Alberta’s Department of Biochemistry, and is the actual son of now-retired professor of Biochemistry, Cyril Kay.
“He had very good training. That was the first thing,” remembers the senior Kay. “And of course he had this innate ability as well. No questions about that.”
“He also really had wonderful mentors along the way. It started here in Alberta when he worked every summer in Brian Sykes’ [Department of Biochemistry] lab. That’s how he got interested in NMR and he could see that it coupled with everything he was interested in.”
Among the mentors who strongly influenced Lewis Kay’s early scientific development at the U of A were Sykes, Ted McClung [Department of Chemistry] and Werner Israel [Department of Physics]. In Sykes’ lab there still hangs an early image of Kay’s from 1983 utilizing NMR imaging. He remembers Kay as a bright and detailed worker in his lab with great potential and recounts how in Kay’s time with him, the then-student published three papers as an undergraduate—an accomplishment out of the ordinary and one of the first signs pointing to what was to come.
The biochemistry professor takes little credit though for his student’s eventual success.
“If Michelangelo comes in, do you really mentor him or do you just give him a canvas and let him draw?” says Sykes. “We just gave him a canvas upon which he could build his career.”
“When you had people like Brian and Ted and Werner to look up to, you couldn’t help but get better,” says Kay. “I have no doubt that if I had not had the kind of nurturing that I experienced at the U of A, I would not have achieved nearly what I’ve been able to do.”
With Kay’s work still stretching before him, he’s careful to acknowledge the people in his past who have helped shape him into the scientist he’s become. He now hopes to follow in their footsteps as a mentor and inspiration to the next generation.
“If all you do is your own work without contributing to that of others, and without developing and nurturing young talent, then I think you’ve kind of missed the boat,” says Kay. “Our longevity is not measured in the years that we walk this earth, but rather—I think—in the number of people that we’re able to affect, that go beyond us.”
“I think it’s important that the young generation out there realizes that if you dream dreams, you can make them happen.”