When biochemist Brian Sykes came back to the University of Alberta in 1975 after stints as a PhD student at Stanford and a chemistry professor at Harvard, he had the goal of creating a world-class lab for his groundbreaking protein research.
Forty-three years and more than 600 published articles later, Sykes has certainly achieved that goal—but what may be even more important are the opportunities he’s created for dozens of other researchers to reach the top of their fields, according to those who worked and studied with him.
“We use the term ‘world-class’ quite loosely these days but we are talking real world-class here,” said Charles Holmes, a colleague of Sykes’ and chair of the U of A’s Department of Biochemistry. “He is the father of the field of nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. There are very few individuals who get to say that about their research careers, no matter what field they are in.”
Sykes, now a professor emeritus in the biochemistry department, was recently named an officer of the Order of Canada for his pioneering contributions to nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy and his commitment to education and science.
Sykes—who was fond of reminding the exceptional researchers he supervised to “never read your own press clippings”—remains modest about his latest accolade.
“I am honoured and pleased to have my contributions to the country recognized, and I am proud of what we accomplished here in the Department of Biochemistry at the U of A. I am happy to have been able to contribute.”
Sykes is also quick to credit the students and post-doctoral fellow he mentored.
“I am happy to see them in universities across Canada and the world dominating the field today,” he said. “I had good players. But a team spirit is a part of that and a part of the lab.
“It’s about doing mostly good, and doing good work.”
Born in Montreal and raised in Alberta, Sykes graduated with an honours degree in chemistry from the U of A in 1965 before heading to Stanford University, where he earned his PhD. He then became an assistant and associate professor of chemistry at Harvard University from 1969 to 1975, before returning to the U of A.
He started out as an associate professor of biochemistry, and over the years added to an ever-growing list of accomplishments, including serving as department chair, Canada Research Chair in Structural Biology and visiting professor at King’s College in London.
Sykes’ efforts over his career focused on exploring the mysteries of protein structure and it affects the function of many biological systems, including human muscle. By determining what happens to proteins during a heart attack, for instance, Sykes and his fellow researchers have worked to help influence smarter drug design.
“I once wrote that the biggest breakthrough was the day biochemistry became chemistry—meaning that biological macromolecules such as proteins and enzymes were suddenly recognized as not mysterious but simply large and very complex chemicals,” he noted.
“This opened the door to the new techniques in chemistry that we were developing, nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, to be applied to proteins—and we went and did so.”
He estimates 100 trainees have gone through his lab over his nearly five decades in academia. Many have now gone on to become pre-eminent scientists in their own right, among them Lewis Kay—Gairdner award winner, recipient of the Herzberg Gold Medal and one of Canada’s top scientists—and Sam Sia, who was named by MIT Technology Review as one of the world’s top young research innovators.
“Working summers in Brian’s lab was a pivotal point in my career,” said Kay, now a professor of chemistry, biochemistry and molecular genetics at the University of Toronto.
“I was able to learn from a master and it gave me a huge advantage over my peers. And the interest that Brian has shown in my achievements and the friendship stemming from that period have been fantastic.”
“My appreciation of Brian has only gone up with time now that I see what the academic job entails,” added Sia, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Columbia University. “He is a true hero in my eyes with his amazing research accomplishments and genuine care and affection for his students.”
Patricia Campbell, who earned her PhD in 1991 under Sykes’ supervision and worked with him as a post-doctoral researcher from 1993 to 1997, spoke at a symposium in Sykes’ honour last year.
“I have worked in many organizations since, scientific laboratories and also now in the practice of law, and I can say, to be a leader who creates that level of affection and connectedness is very rare,” she said.
“His legacy for me is love what you do, pass that along, that love and passion to the people that work for you, and protect and inspire them every step of the way as they move through their lives.”
Although he may be retired, it’s clear the burning desire to explore the mysteries that have driven his life’s work hasn’t ebbed yet.
“I still lie up at night thinking about some stupid problem in the lab,” said Sykes with a laugh. “My wife says when I retired I moved the wake-up call from 7 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. That was my concession to retirement. She thinks that’s funny.”
Sykes joins Arctic scientist John England as the 2019 Order of Canada recipients from the U of A. Alumnus Allan Wachowich, former chief justice of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench, was also named to the Order of Canada.
They are among 83 new appointments to the Order of Canada announced last week by Governor General Julie Payette.
—with files from Lesley Young