"We didn’t compete with one another. We worked together toward the common good. We focused on the joy of collaborating to advance our mutual understanding of the building blocks of life. To borrow a term from the John Kennedy era, it was like being in Camelot."
Dr. Cyril Kay is among the top protein chemists in the world. For over 60 years, he has built highly successful, multi-disciplinary research teams dedicated to seeking answers to leading biomedical questions.
Cyril Max Kay was born on October 3, 1931, in Calgary, Alberta. His parents had immigrated 10 years earlier from what is now Belarus. To support the young family in their new country, Cyril’s father sold fruit and vegetables at Calgary’s old City Hall market. But tragedy struck when Cyril was 12. His father passed away. His mother took over the family’s stall, but money was tight, and Cyril’s dream of attending university seemed unattainable.
A family friend suggested he apply for McGill University’s new J. W. McConnell scholarship, which would pay for tuition, room and board for four years. Thanks to his outstanding grades, Cyril received one of only four McConnell scholarships available in 1949.
Cyril wanted to study honours chemistry, but McGill was strapped for space, because many veterans had enrolled after the Second World War. So the first two years of the honours chemistry program were based in St. John’s, Quebec, some 70 km from Montreal. Cyril had not come all the way from Calgary only to study in St. John’s, so he asked if any science programs were based in Montreal. The answer, honours biochemistry, changed the direction of his life. “Sign me up,” said Cyril and he never looked back. Throughout his studies, he found a superb group of professors who nurtured in him a lifelong love of studying proteins and enzymes, the building blocks of life.
While at home for the summer after his third year at McGill, Cyril began dating Faye Bloomenthal. When Cyril went on to Harvard to work on his Ph.D., Faye joined him, studying liberal arts/education at Boston University. The couple married in 1953. Cyril followed his graduate studies with a postdoctoral period at Cambridge University where he began his lifelong fascination with muscle proteins.
Tenured jobs in those days were rare, yet Cyril landed one of only two biochemistry positions in all of Canada when the University of Alberta recruited him to the Department of Biochemistry in 1958. Cyril and colleague Dr. Larry Smillie knew the synergy of a team collaborating on protein research would be far greater than the sum of individual contributions.
Around the same time, the Canadian government began funding multi-disciplinary research teams – called Medical Research Council Groups – and asked Cyril and Larry to co-lead the first protein group in Canada, called the MRC Group on Protein Structure and Function. So with the blessing of the university, they began personally visiting biochemists across North America whose expertise would be complementary additions to the group. “We went shopping for the best of the best and we recruited them,” smiles Cyril.
“We didn’t compete with one another. We worked together toward the common good. We focused on the joy of collaborating to advance our mutual understanding of the building blocks of life. To borrow a term from the John Kennedy era, it was like being in Camelot.”
Between 1974 and 1995, the MRC Group developed leading-edge technologies and published over 1,600 original, peer-reviewed, articles – an astonishing accomplishment – and the impact of that research is still being seen today. Their work was diverse, with implications for treating infectious diseases, cardiovascular disease, bacterial infections and much more. Many of the group’s 250 students and postdoctoral fellows went on to become academic leaders around the world. Collaborations among group and departmental members also played a major role in the university’s Department of Biochemistry becoming the top biochemistry department in Canada, as well as the standard of research excellence in the Faculty of Medicine.
Cyril found a new challenge when the federal government ended funding for MRC Groups and focused instead on National Centres of Excellence. In 1990, Cyril became a founding member of the Protein Engineering Network of Centres of Excellence (PENCE). With University of Alberta leadership, PENCE became a scientific alliance of some 60 researchers across Canada. Their mission was to interact with industry, government and other academic centres to engineer and study proteins for the economic benefit of Canada. Cyril served as Chair of the PENCE Scientific Advisory Board. During its 15 years, PENCE was seen as the top life sciences network in Canada.
In 1995, an international symposium was hosted by the University of Alberta in honour of Cyril’s outstanding leadership, accomplishments and contributions to the university and the scientific community at large. He retired as Professor of Biochemistry after 37 years at the University of Alberta.
Cyril’s retirement was short lived. In 1998, the Alberta Science and Research Authority (ASRA) needed him to develop a health research plan for the province. ASRA also asked him to help investigate how to develop Alberta’s research and development capacity in energy, ICT and life sciences. Once again, he outlined a strategy for institutional collaboration, cooperation and sharing. Cyril subsequently joined the ASRA board.
The Alberta Cancer Board also needed Cyril’s leadership to develop a vision for cancer research, so in 1999, he became Vice President of Research. For the next decade, his contribution was enormous, stimulating substantial research growth and fostering an unprecedented level of cooperation among cancer researchers right across the province.
This extensive collaboration underpinned Cyril’s vision of a virtual Alberta Cancer Research Institute that would pool resources and expertise to achieve heavyweight status on the international cancer research scene. But his elegant vision and plan ended when the Alberta government terminated the Alberta Cancer Board in 2008.
Cyril retired for a second time. But friends Dianne and Irving Kipnes needed his gift for building multi-disciplinary teams as they set up their foundation dedicated to stimulating lymphedema research. Cyril played an indispensable role guiding the foundation and developing the Alberta Lymphedema Network (ALNET). Despite lymphedema having received little research attention in the past, his stature within the medical community has drawn researchers from many disciplines to participate in ALNET. As a member of the Strategic Advisory Board, Cyril is dedicated to establishing Alberta as a world-class leader in lymphatic research and treatment.
Throughout his career, Cyril has been asked to serve on numerous advisory and editorial boards and grant panels in Canada and around the world. He served for 10 years on the Gairdner Awards selection committee, which selects the top biomedical and medical researchers in the world. His extensive service also includes the MRC Council of Canada, which provided key vision and direction for medical research in Canada, and the Scientific Advisory Board of the Canadian Heart Foundation. He is past president of the Canadian Biochemical Society, past Associate Editor of the Canadian Journal of Biochemistry, and Founding Editor of Paabs Revista, a review journal in biochemistry and molecular biology.
To date, Cyril has published 349 research papers focused mainly on the structure and function relationships of muscle and calcium binding proteins. He has mentored many scientists who have moved on to international positions. And he takes great pride that his son Lewis is an outstanding biophysicist in his own right.
Cyril’s recognitions and awards are many. In 1969-1970, he was an MRC Visiting Scientist in the Biophysics Department of the Weizmann Institute. He was elected as a Fellow of the New York Academy of Science in 1970, Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1978, and Fellow of the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences in 2010. He received the Distinguished Scientist Award from the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Medicine in 1988 and an Honorary Doctorate of Science from the university in 2019. He received the ASTech Award for a Lifetime of Outstanding Contributions to the Alberta Science and Technology Community in 2006. In 2003, the Alberta Cancer Board and Foundation endowed the Dr. Cyril M. Kay Graduate Studentship in Cancer Research in perpetuity for his role in promoting cancer research in the province.
Named a Member of the Order of Canada in 1995, Cyril was elevated to Officer of the Order of Canada in 2006. He and Lewis are among very few fathers and sons who have both received the Order. Cyril is a recipient of Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee Medal in 2002, the Alberta Centennial Medal in 2005, and Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee medal in 2012).
Celebrating his 90th birthday in 2021, Cyril continues to serve local and international scientific communities. For the past 10 years and counting, he has served on the Scientific Advisory Board of Oncopole, a significant international cancer research centre in Toulouse, France.
Cyril and his wife Faye have two children, Lisa and Lewis, and four grandchildren.
Executive Director, The Alberta Order of Excellence