Childhood experiments just a start for McKay


Have you ever looked up and wondered about the origin and contents of paper towel wads on a ceiling?

Chances are anyone who spent time in the University of Lethbridge chemistry labs will admit they have occasionally wondered about the unintentional ceiling artwork. Dr. Ryan McKay (BSc '93), scientific director and assistant director at the National High Field Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Centre (NANUC), didn't give them a second thought – because he knew their origin.

"My dad worked as an academic assistant at the University from 1967 until just a few years ago. I remember going to work with him when I was a kid," says McKay. "My dad would set me up at the bench while he marked and I would experiment with soap detergents and copper sulfate. I would mix things until I had enough pressure in the tube to have corks blow off. I had stuff stuck to the ceiling for decades."

Of course, McKay is a lot more serious about his scientific research now, but his childhood experiments were a sign of things to come. McKay entered the University as a pre-law student in 1989. After only one semester, however, he realized science was in his blood. He changed his major to biochemistry and spent the remainder of his undergraduate summers working as a research assistant and experimenting in organic chemistry.

"Going to the U of L, with its smaller classes, gave me more opportunity to do projects, and really affected my understanding of how research is done," recalls McKay. "The research was fascinating."

McKay became particularly enthralled with nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) research while working with an NMR spectrometer during one of his summer projects. After graduating with distinction in 1993, McKay received a National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) scholarship to attend graduate school.

"When I finished my undergrad I wanted to study viruses with NMR spectrometry. Looking for a supervising professor at the University of Alberta, I met Dr. Brian Sykes. Not really knowing who he was, I very casually plunked myself in one of his chairs, and explained my research interests. It wasn't until Brian decided to supervise my master's degree that I realized he was one of the top NMR guys on the planet," grins McKay.

McKay started a master's of science at the U of A in 1993, but switched to a PhD in 1996. He completed his PhD in biological sciences in 1999 then did two consecutive post-doctoral fellowships in physical biochemistry, at the University of Minneapolis and the University of Calgary. While still at the U of C, McKay applied for the position of scientific director at NANUC in 2001.

"NANUC is a national research facility housed at the U of A. Using super conducting magnets we look at the nucleus of the atoms and, using radio frequencies, figure out what these atoms are doing," explains McKay. "The applications include everything from finding new antibiotic drugs to making the extraction of oil from oil sands more efficient. My job is to train and guide the academic, industrial and government researchers with their experiments as they use our facilities for research. I am also in charge of facility grants, to see that they are properly maintained and conducted."

McKay's current research involves projects such as the analysis of the water in Alberta tailing ponds and a calcium binding protein found in the human brain. His goals are to help Albertans understand the environmental impacts of the ponds and for his research to significantly contribute to environmental improvement. Knowing McKay, it will.


• McKay is married with two children

• He is the recipient of numerous awards and scholarships, including but not limited to NSERC and AHFMR

• Has authored/co-authored numerous academic articles and papers

• Presented, hosted and organized seven annual Canadian national NMR training courses

• Is a faculty member (equivalent of associate professor) at University of Alberta, instructing and advising undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral fellows

• Recently awarded a five-year renewal on his facility grant, including two CIHR and two NSERC grants