Faculty Feature Stephen Sykes

Stephen Sykes, PhD, joined the Department of Pediatrics at Washington University as an associate professor in June 2021. As a scientist, he fights cancer through research. Right now, he is at war with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) which is a blood cancer that afflicts both kids and adults and has some of the poorest outcomes of all cancers. Sykes believes that the best strategy for fighting AML is to first understand the molecular features that both support diseased cells and distinguish them from healthy cells and then use that information to design highly effective therapies with minimal side-effects. His current research program is built on the fundamental observation that cancer cells, including those of AML, display distinct metabolic rates compared to healthy cells. As a result, he is trying to figure out how these metabolic changes support AML in order to develop therapeutic strategies that target these leukemia-specific metabolic changes.

His passion for cancer research stems from his own family history of cancer. Both his mom and dad are cancer survivors, and he has four other extended family members who either survived or succumbed to cancer. While his interest in cancer started at a young age, his path to a career in cancer research was circuitous.

Sykes spent the first 18 years of his life in the eastern Canada province of Nova Scotia, where the climate is just a “skosh” different from that of St. Louis. Although he had a penchant for math and science, he was far more interested in playing (and day-dreaming about) basketball and baseball. Needless to say, he was not exactly a stellar student throughout grade school. However, his prowess on the baseball field and the basketball court garnered him attention from several colleges and universities, including a junior college in upstate New York. With aspirations of one day playing professional baseball, he jumped at the opportunity to play in the U.S. where the exposure to major league scouts was much higher than in Canada. However, it did not take long for him to realize that his talents were nowhere near that of legitimate prospects. In parallel, Sykes began falling in love with science and, in particular, biochemistry. Then, at the end of his freshman year, he tore his rotator cuff, which was the final nail in his pitching career coffin. As a result, Sykes transferred to Mount Allison University (Mount A), a small prestigious University located in the Canadian Maritimes, that at the time, had a burgeoning biochemistry program. Here, Sykes earned a Bachelor’s degree in science with a major in biochemistry and became the first college/university graduate in his immediate and extended family. He was also awarded the distinction of Academic All-Canadian in Basketball.

Although he received exceptional theoretical training at Mount A, Sykes had little exposure to cancer research. Therefore, he applied and was accepted into the cancer biology PhD graduate program at the University of Pennsylvania. During his PhD studies, Sykes took up an interest in blood cancers and in particular AML. Thus, for his post-doctoral fellowship, Sykes joined the Harvard Medical School system where he had the opportunity to be mentored by two global leaders in leukemia biology, Drs. D. Gary Gilliland and David T. Scadden. While he enjoyed career success here, Sykes will quickly tell you that his time in Boston was marked by the two most defining events of his life — meeting his wife, Francesca Ferraro, MD/PhD, who an assistant professor in the Division of Adult Hematology/Oncology here at WashU and the birth of his son, Jameson.

Sykes and Ferraro now live in the St. Louis Hills neighborhood with their two feline children, Schmidt and Lulu. They stay active through cycling, vinyasa yoga, weight training and working on their house.

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