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Kay named new dean of USC Dornsife

Steve A. Kay is the new dean of USC Dornsife
Steve A. Kay currently serves as dean of biological sciences at the University of California, San Diego. (Photo/Courtesy of the University of California, San Diego)

Steve A. Kay has been appointed the 21st dean of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, the university announced today. He will lead USC Dornsife starting this fall.

Kay, who is a member of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), currently serves as dean of biological sciences at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), overseeing a large academic division that includes a graduate program ranked first among its peers in 2011 by the National Research Council.

“Dr. Kay has distinguished himself as an innovative researcher, a successful administrator and an inspiring leader,” said USC provost and senior vice president for academic affairs Elizabeth Garrett in an announcement on behalf of President C. L. Max Nikias.

One of the world’s top experts on genes and circadian rhythms, he has published more than 200 papers and has been cited in Science magazine’s “Breakthroughs of the Year” three times since 1997.

Kay pointed to the broad strength of both USC Dornsife and the university’s array of professional schools as key factors in his decision to join USC.

“The great attraction of USC is the breadth that the Dornsife [College] offers in terms of being able to bring faculty together from different disciplines,” Kay said. “Some of the most exciting aspects of scholarship are at the interfaces between disciplines.

“Where else in the world could one go to capture the amazing breadth of the College and then mix that with the professional schools? It’s very humbling and exciting to be chosen for what I think really is one of the most exciting jobs in academia right now in the world.”

Having held faculty positions at The Rockefeller University, the University of Virginia and the Scripps Research Institute before joining UCSD in 2007, Kay said, “I’m profoundly passionate about university education.”

As a dean at UCSD, Kay led a large and dynamic academic division with nearly 6,000 undergraduate biology majors, several hundred graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, as well as faculty spanning four major departments. As an academic leader, Kay demonstrated a commitment to faculty excellence, recruiting exceptional new faculty members to the division, including department chairs and center directors, members of the NAS, and other distinguished and productive researchers. In addition, four significant new research centers spanning biomedical to environmental sciences were created during his tenure.

Kay, who has studied genetics and genomics, received his Ph.D. from the University of Bristol, United Kingdom. In 2008, he was elected as a member of the NAS, in 2009 he was elected as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and in 2010 he was awarded the UCSD Chancellor’s Associates Faculty Award for Excellence in Research. He recently was chosen to receive the 2011 Martin Gibbs Medal by the American Society of Plant Biologists as recognition for pioneering work in plant sciences.

His group’s research contributed significantly to the understanding of the genetic basis for circadian rhythms, which serve as the body’s clock for timing the day-night cycle. Kay and others also explored the ties between circadian rhythms and the body’s metabolism, helping to explain why night-shift workers, frequent travelers and others with disrupted circadian rhythms appear more prone to metabolic disorders.

“The last five years of our field have revealed these profound connections between our body’s clock and how efficient our metabolism is,” Kay said. “We are not only what we eat, but we are when we eat.”

Kay’s appointment is effective on Oct. 1. Dean Howard Gillman will step down on June 30; executive vice provost Michael Quick will assume the dean’s administrative duties beginning July 1 and will continue until Kay’s arrival. Quick will be assisted during this transition by members of the USC Dornsife leadership team, including vice deans Steven Lamy, George Sanchez and Donal Manahan.

“On behalf of the president, I want to again thank professor Howard Gillman for his service as dean of the Dornsife College since 2007,” Garrett said. “His excellent work helped position the Dornsife College so that it could benefit from the generosity and vision of Dana and David Dornsife as they made their gift of $200 million to support the college’s academic mission.”

As dean, Gillman implemented plans to ensure that all undergraduate students had access to resources enabling them to conduct research. He also expanded opportunities for overseas study and service learning. In addition, during his tenure, graduation rates increased, improvements were made to the quality of Ph.D. programs, non-tenure-track faculty promotion pathways were created and many new faculty members were recruited.

In his spare time, Kay enjoys ocean diving and sportfishing. He is married to professor and neurobiologist Shelley Halpain, and the couple has three children: Sophie, 12, and twins Julian and Alexander, 6.

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