Professor Dame Kay Davies is the Dr. Lee’s Professor of Anatomy in the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics and Director of the MRC Functional Genomics Unit at the University of Oxford. She is also the Honorary Director of the MRC Functional Genomics Unit, a deputy chairman of the Wellcome Trust, and Executive Editor of the journal Human Molecular Genetics. Kay is also a co-founder of a biotechnology company and is a director of another. She completed her undergraduate studies at Somerville College and served as a Junior Research Fellow at Wolfson College in Oxford. She then completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Saclay Nuclear Research Center, and went on to serve as a research fellow at St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School and John Radcliffe Hospital and then as a faculty member at John Radcliffe Hospital and the University of London before joining the faculty at Oxford. Kay has received many awards and honors during her career, and to name just a few, she was elected as a founding Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences and a Fellow of the Royal Society. She was also named Commander of the Order of the British Empire and then Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Kay is also an Honorary Fellow of Sommerville College, and had the honor of giving the inaugural Rose lecture at Kingston University in 2012 and the Harveian Oration at the Royal College of Physicians in 2013. In our interview, Kay tells us more about her journey through life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:54)
When she’s not working, Kay loves taking walks in the English countryside, listening to classical music, and playing the piano.
The Scientific Side (3:34)
In her research, Kay uses genetics techniques to help find effective treatments for muscular dystrophy. Much of her work has focused on Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a severe and progressive muscle wasting disease that primarily affects males.
A Dose of Motivation (4:42)
Be tenacious and patient.
What Got You Hooked on Science? (7:00)
Thinking back to her early years in school, Kay has always been fascinated by mathematics. Her mother was passionate about gardening and biology, and she was an important influence and source of support for Kay. During high school, Kay had an exceptional chemistry teacher, and this experience guided her towards chemistry in college. She attended the University of Oxford where her faculty members encouraged her to push herself intellectually and to pursue what most interested her. Kay’s forays in genetics didn’t begin until she traveled to Paris as a postdoctoral fellow. At that time, DNA sequencing was just beginning, and it was thrilling to talk to people in the lab about all of the possible applications and implications of this technology.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (14:17)
For Kay, one of the most challenging times in her career was when her son was born. Prioritizing her family was really important, but it was a struggle to juggle everything. After about two to three years as a mom, Kay suddenly realized that she could do it. Confidence, mentorship, and passion for her work were really important for helping Kay get through this tough time. Another difficult period in her career was when she moved to London to accept a new position. After a variety of challenges, Kay ended up resigning from her position. This situation taught her the importance of taking time to think things through and making sure not to let emotions impact her decision making.
A Shining Success! (18:46)
In 1988, Kay and her colleagues discovered a protein that is very similar to dystrophin, the protein missing in people with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. She’ll never forget this series of events. They were surprised when one of her colleagues came into the lab and revealed that the gene for this protein wasn’t on the X chromosome as they were expecting since the disease primarily affects males. A friend and fellow researcher was visiting the lab and brought the protein back to New Zealand with her to sequence. Kay was overjoyed when her friend sent her a message about how incredibly similar this protein was to dystrophin. This moment was a major turning point and the beginning of their work developing new approaches to screen for and potentially treat muscular dystrophy.
Book Recommendations (20:49)
Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela
Most Treasured Travel (21:45)
Paris will always hold a special place in Kay’s heart. This is the city where she was introduced to genetics, and she had a wonderful time during her postdoctoral fellowship there. Everyone worked really hard in the lab, but they also had a lot of fun. In the winter, they would travel to the mountains by coach on a Friday after work, ski all day Saturday and Sunday, and be back in the lab on Monday morning. During these weekend getaways, they had fun and got inspired discussing science. In addition, Kay has a great appreciation for the language, literature, and art in Paris.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (24:25)
Many of the labs in Scotland that Kay has interacted with have a tradition of going out for drinks together on Friday afternoons. These outings provide excellent opportunities to chat with other scientists in a different environment. Similarly, when they were planning spaces in the building that Kay works in, they installed a table tennis table because they wanted people to have a place to gather. This would bring together people from statistics, molecular biology, physiology, and other areas to talk and get to know each other. They held table tennis competitions on Friday nights, and it was a perfect year-round tradition there.
Advice For Us All (28:18)
Focus on your strengths and what you can offer in your work. Also, never give up and never feel bitter about your failures or how others treat you. Just move on. There are many great things to do, and it’s best to move on to the next thing instead of dwelling on negative experiences.
This episode was originally published on August 20, 2014.