Made in Bristol: Steve Kay and pursuing passion

As part of our ‘Made in Bristol’ interview series, alumnus Steve Kay (BSc 1981, PhD 1985, Hon DSc 2014) takes us through his journey from Bristol to becoming one of the world’s leading scientists.

My job as a scientist is to come into work each day and see something new in Nature that nobody else has seen before. Engaging the incredible diversity of life that has evolved on this planet makes my hair stand on end some days. Bristol nurtured that awe. I initially went to Oxford to do medicine (and play rugby), but frankly found the classes there rather boring after one term.

I realised I’d gone down the wrong path for me. I wasn’t pursuing my passion. I grew up on the island of Jersey where a myriad of marine creatures would be exposed during very low tides. They fascinated me. One day my elementary teacher brought in a microscope from mainland England and we spent hours with our eyes glued to it, staring at creatures swimming in pond water. That fascination and excitement with natural science couldn’t be matched.

After some reflection, I recalled how much I had enjoyed interviewing with Bristol’s Biochemistry department during campus visits. I contacted the department and entered the following autumn and found it to be absolutely the best place for me – a rigorous curriculum combined with a sense of belonging to an academic family.

I loved it so much, and I am proud to be a “triple” alum. Bristol taught me rigor and discipline in science. Professors like Nigel Brown, Owen Jones and my PhD advisor Trevor Griffiths demanded independent thought (and hard work). But they also valued collaboration and collegiality. These principles have stuck with me throughout my career – how to aggressively pursue the truth, while not taking yourself too seriously.

In terms of opportunity, the USA has a science economy like no other and I was keen to explore new horizons. Over the last 25 years, we have generated a deep knowledge base of how circadian clocks are built and function in a variety of organisms. California remains a hotbed of innovation and a fantastic place to translate our knowledge into products that provide some benefit to mankind. In the case of agriculture, this can be crops that are more resistant to stresses due to climate change. In humans, there is the real possibility of developing drugs that target the clockworks to treat diseases like diabetes and cancer.

If I could give one word of advice to students today it would be to constantly seek out people smarter than yourself to work with. That translated into some wonderful discoveries in my own field, such as identifying many of the key clock genes in plants and humans, that are now relevant to advances in either agriculture or medicine.

I am incredibly grateful to the University for the training and scholarship I received while there, and the memories: walking across the downs in all kinds of weather from Wills Hall to classes every day, (Southern California can make you soft!), picking up cider (“scrumpy”) from our own “Department of Pomology” at the Long Ashton Research station on a Friday afternoon, and meeting the Oxford Dangerous Sports club at a party in Clifton the night before they did the world’s first bungee jump in 1979!

It reminds me that it pays to take a leap into the unknown, to embrace the wrong turns, dust yourself off and get right back in there. Bristol continues to dare to be different, and I very much enjoy staying involved with the University as chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board for BrisSynBio, a world class synthetic biology centre. A good piece of both my heart and brain will always be at the University of Bristol and the wonderful city. Like me, it too is looking for something new, something that nobody else has seen or done before, and that’s an exciting place to be.

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Professor Steve A. Kay (BSc 1981, PhD 1985, Hon DSc 2014) is Director of Convergent Biosciences and Provost Professor of Neurology, Biomedical Engineering and Biological Sciences at the University of Southern California. As one of the world’s top experts on genes and circadian rhythms, he has published more than 200 papers and is named by Thomson-Reuters as a highly cited scientist. He has been cited in Science magazine’s “Breakthroughs of the Year” three times since 1997, and has received numerous awards, including election to the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. Kay has served on the advisory boards to Althea, Bayer AG, Monsanto, Novartis, Toyota Motor Corp and BP, amongst others.

US Foundation: Your alumni network

A year’s end perspective to our U.S-based alumni by Lesley Silvester, Chair University of Bristol Foundation.

The year’s end approaches, and typically drives an appraisal of the happenings of the past 12 months. In terms of the presence of the U.S. Foundation across America there is much to be happy about: first, the increase in financial support from the U.S.-based alumni community, and, equally important, the engagement of community members in alumni gatherings and the exchange of information between the University and its alumni not just in the U.S. but across the globe. A vital underpinning of such exchanges continues to be the desire of the University to both communicate Bristol’s strategic initiatives and, importantly, to openly discuss the key drivers of these initiatives.

In recent gatherings held by the Vice-Chancellor and his team, he discussed the strategic initiatives and challenges being focused on. In summary, they relate to increased diversity in the student body, internationalization, world-class research, campus redevelopment (with a huge focus on building community space), and the mental health well-being of students. These topics resonated with many of the alumni participating in the meetings; a number of us have long questioned why the University of Bristol of which we are proud has had a relatively low profile internationally. To me, what was particularly powerful in the Vice Chancellor’s discussions was the investment that the University is making in truly understanding the nature of its students’ mental well-being. Bristol is moving towards becoming a national leader in mental health research and remediation.

The relevance of these strategies and investments was additionally reinforced by four exchange students from Bristol, two of whom are studying at the University of California, Berkeley and two of whom are at Boston College. They shared some very interesting insights about their experiences and perspectives, which helped reinforce the path forward being articulated.

The Directors of the Foundation greatly appreciate those alumni who have become engaged with our efforts and those who are contributing to the University through the Foundation. Thank you! We would also like to thank the team at Bristol, under the leadership of Steve O’Connor, who have provided such terrific support of our aspirations in the U.S. to increase the impact of the Foundation.


Fulbright Scholarships

This year, the US Foundation have funded two Fulbright scholars thanks to generosity from alumni in the US.

One of these is Samantha Berman, pictured left, who recently graduated from Tufts University, with a BA in Environmental Science and Biology. She will pursue an MSc in Experimental Psychology, working to improve psychological patient care for individuals with cleft lip and/or palate, under the leadership of the University of Bristol’s Cleft Collective and the Person Perception and Person Knowledge Lab (PPPKL).


 

Personally and on behalf of the Directors of the U. S. Foundation I send very best wishes for the holidays and 2019. We look forward to seeing you and welcoming you at future events.

Bristol University on the road in the USA

A report on the bi-coastal visit to SF and NYC by Ely J Kahn

New York President's Reception 2018

A University delegation, led by Vice-Chancellor Hugh Brady, traveled across the United States in September, visiting enthusiastic alumni gatherings in both San Francisco and New York City. The meetings included discussions with the Board of Directors of Bristol’s US-based American Foundation in California, and presentations in both cities by University students studying in the States on semester abroad programs. Both were highlighted by the Vice-Chancellor Brady’s reflections on the progress towards achieving the vision laid out in the University’s current strategic plan for greater internationalism, increased emphasis on attracting and retaining the best and brightest researchers, and campus redevelopment.

Dozens of Bristol graduates and their partners attended the two alumni meetings. The Vice-Chancellor was accompanied on the trip by Pro Vice-Chancellor Erik Lithander, who heads the University’s International Office, and by Stephen O’Connor, the University’s Dirrector of Development and Alumni Relations. He emphasized that a primary goal for his team is “to get a student body that replicates the world we live in.” Internationalization, he explained, meant that Bristol had to “move beyond A-levels”, and find additional avenues of access for worthy candidates, including those from the United States. “There’s never been more change in education,” the Vice-Chancellor added.

San Francisco President's Reception 2018

In San Francisco, at a US Foundation Board meeting led by Chair Lesley Silvester, the Vice-Chancellor said that one of the issues that had been “keeping me awake at night” over the past year was the mental health of university students. The Foundation Board agreed that it should be a priority, and approved a grant that will support a new Vice-Chancellor Fellowship in Mental Health and Well-Being in UK Universities, as well as funding for Widening Participation scholarships and a scholarship programme associated with the British Heart Foundation.

In New York, Vice-Chancellor Professor Hugh Brady expanded upon the issues that keep him awake, adding the uncertainty around the Brexit negotiations, and whether it will result in obstacles to the University’s ongoing efforts to attract the best European candidates, as well as the government’s review of higher education funding, and its potential impact on the Bristol budget.

We need your support, and your engagement,’ said Professor Hugh Brady.

Foundation Chair Lesley Silvester reiterated the need. “In San Francisco,” she said, “we saw the richness of the alumni network. Its benefits are powerful, the result of the community we’re trying to strengthen through the Foundation. It’s growing, but we want more — more Directors, more volunteers. Please join us.”

‘Britain and Bristol gave me roots, and America gave me wings,’ Laura Trevelyan (BSc 1990), BBC World News America Anchor

As part of the ‘Made in Bristol’ interview series, alumna Laura Trevelyan takes us through her journey from Bristol to BBC World News America Anchor.

When I think of Bristol, I remember the suspension bridge, drinking coffee with my friends, cramming in the library, and halcyon early summer city days after final exams. I loved Bristol from the moment I set foot in Clifton as a sixth form student and was thrilled to be offered a place to read English. However, the Beowulf curriculum did not agree with me and I was soon beating down the door of the Politics Dept asking to transfer!

Dr Donald Shell kindly listened to my tale of woe, told me it was very unusual for students to transfer out of the English Dept, but he was sure something could be done. And indeed it was. Donald and Prof Mark Wickham-Jones were inspiring and engaging tutors who widened my horizons. In our final year, politics students participated in a role play exercise in which we played negotiators representing different countries in a global crisis. The scenario was realistic – conflict in the Middle East. I was a Norwegian peace maker, and we had tremendously good fun throwing ourselves into the different characters! It taught me so much about diplomacy and how personalities can affect delicate situations.

The most memorable part of my time at Bristol was going solo in a bulldog aircraft at Filton airfield, where I was in the Bristol University Air Squadron. The feeling of freedom was exhilarating, and my instructors were so welcoming. I was one of a batch of the first women to be admitted to BUAS as an experiment to see how women would do should they be admitted as pilots. The experiment was a success and women now fly fast jets in the RAF! I was the first to go solo in my class, since I was reading English and everyone else was an aeronautical engineer.

My passion for journalism came from a voracious interest in what’s going on in the world and why. I wrote for the student magazine Waysgoose at Bristol and applying to Cardiff University’s postgraduate diploma in journalism seemed like an obvious step. In 2004, I moved to the USA with my family and I covered the USA elections for the BBC as the United Nations correspondent. We loved the energy, excitement and broad canvas the US offered us, so we stayed.

The biggest challenge of my life was finding a work/life balance. It is a constant juggling act, and when my boys were little I was always exhausted and never felt there was enough time to do anything. Now they’re bigger, I have to wait up until they get home and I’m still tired! Every stage of being a parent presents different challenges. But if you want to have children and a career, there’s never a good time to have a baby. It’s always inconvenient!

It’s been a privilege to work for the BBC for half my life and becoming a US citizen was a highly significant event for me too. The Americans started the revolutionary war-crying for no taxation without representation – and as a non-citizen I felt strongly about this too! Our youngest son was born in the US, our two older boys were raised here, and we felt committed to our new home, which had welcomed us with open arms and given us so much opportunity. I was sworn in the day after Donald Trump’s election, with people from all four corners of the world, and it was a very emotional occasion. Britain and Bristol gave me roots, and America gave me wings.

New York networking reception and talk: “Microsoft culture, strategy and community”

New York networking reception and talk: “Microsoft culture, strategy and community”The University of Bristol’s US Foundation, in collaboration with Microsoft, hosted the third annual Fall networking event in New York City on October 5. Attracting approximately 50 alumni and guests, the event included drinks and canapes on the stunning seventh-floor terrace of Microsoft’s Technology Center on Eighth Avenue overlooking Times Square, and a board-room presentation on the development of the Microsoft corporate culture by Antuan Santana, a corporate social responsibility leader at the tech giant.

“Events such as this,” said Foundation Chair Lesley Silvester, who joined Santana and University Director of Development Stephen O’Connor in addressing the gathering, “provide great opportunities for learning and the exchange of ideas. This is a key component of our goal to build a strong network of alumni across the US.”

Both Silvester and O’Connor highlighted the critical role played by alumnus James Fleming, a Microsoft executive, in securing both the venue and his company’s support for the event. O’Connor added that other American cities — Chicago and San Francisco, for example — will also be the focus of alumni community-building efforts, as will other geographic regions, including Southeast Asia.