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2011 Dean’s Award: Kaoru Ikuma

Dean’s Award for Excellence in Mentoring

Kaoru Ikuma, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, received a B.S. in both Biological Sciences and Biochemistry in 2005 and an M.S. in Environmental Sciences and Engineering from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in 2007. Her research focuses on the effect of select biological and environmental factors on the horizontal gene transfer and functionality of the TOL plasmid. In her research group she is highly regarded by students and faculty alike for her high standards, proactive helpfulness, and technical knowledge that she freely shares and willingly teaches.

Kaoru's nominators appreciate the personal qualities she exhibits that demonstrate her concern for others and which extend from the individual to the entire department, as one observes, "Kaoru is an excellent mentor because she understands the patience and empathy required to be a good teacher. Kaoru provides resources, connections, and supports an environment that promotes understanding, whether she is showing a recent paper or book chapter or helping work through a technical procedure." In addition to finding time to conduct her own research, she also somehow makes time for all those who need assistance, such that "Although Kaoru is inundated with requests for help from within the department, she takes the time to work with and help people in need."

Faculty also find Kaoru not only to be extremely patient and skillful, but also to have a willingness to help others that is truly remarkable, as one faculty member says, "In my 16 years in academia, working with numerous undergraduates and graduate students, postdocs, and researchers, I have not seen a person more ready to help and mentor than Kaoru. Kaoru is THE central person dealing with all molecular methods in microbial ecology in our labs. These are all complex and time-consuming operations that many of our graduate students have to use at some point. Invariably, these students go to Kaoru who has patiently and with great skill and tact instructed them. She always finds time and is able to transmit her knowledge to these students as well as giving them the skills they need to succeed."

One nominator notes that "Most of the mentoring activities in which Kaoru partakes are self-driven,"  adding that Kaoru's recognition of the department's mentoring need has motivated her to "put together a mini-course that would be available to all incoming graduate students to gain knowledge of a few of the basic lab procedures."   Kaoru has also organized journal clubs and "maintains a close eye on current literature and as such is often able to point students in directions they may not have been headed." Kaoru recognizes the value of being altruistic in terms of mentoring, appreciating that "by helping others she is simultaneously gaining a better understanding of research areas outside her own and innately improving her own knowledge of the discipline."

Because of her skill, tact, and drive to help others, Kaoru holds a special place in her lab group; she is "a lifeline for many of the graduate students and undergraduate researchers in the Environmental Process Engineering labs" who helps others to define the scope of their research, and takes time to suggest how to incorporate new approaches and analytical techniques into their work. Kaoru also models very high standards of scientific research that do not go unnoticed by those she mentors, as one of them notes, "One characteristic of hers I really appreciate is her honesty regarding both the quality of my work and my data interpretation. She uncompromisingly pursues academic integrity and honesty regarding what the data says."

Kaoru's natural talent for instructing and mentoring peers so that they can excel on their own, combined with her positive attitude and evident passion for professional, honest research and inspirational education, fosters excellence and professionalism in those she mentors.