Four years after plant sciences professor Kentaro Inoue was struck and killed while riding his bike, the last three graduate students from his lab are ensuring his scientific legacy lives on through their published research, careers in industry and academia, and mentoring of future science students.
Philip Day, Laura Klasek and Lucas McKinnon successfully completed their doctoral degrees in the past year, having continued their studies with the support of plant biology professor Steven Theg, one of Inoue’s colleagues, and the Department of Plant Sciences.
Inoue, a member of the faculty for 15 years, died while cycling through West Sacramento, en route to campus, Aug. 31, 2016.
Day, Klasek and McKinnon “had to make a decision to stay in science, stay with projects Kentaro gave them, not knowing how they would turn out, so they really persevered,” Theg said. “I thought it took a lot of fortitude.”
Theg would become their mentor — fortunate, he said, to have inherited such talented students. The trio has flourished, he said, citing publication of their work in one of the leading journals in plant sciences, The Plant Cell — research that focuses on chloroplasts, which are responsible for photosynthesis in plants. Theg’s own work involves protein translocation across chloroplast membranes.
“They should be very proud of their research, and I’m proud of them, too,” he said. “Having their papers all in the same top plant sciences journal is a really nice way to celebrate Kentaro’s final scientific contributions.”
‘A beautiful collaboration’
Georgia Drakakaki, associate professor in plant sciences and a colleague of Inoue, described the work of Theg and the students as “a beautiful collaboration — something really good that came out of a tragic moment that Kentaro would be proud of.”
Inoue, whose appointment was in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, and Theg, of the College of Biological Sciences, were close colleagues, had overlapping research and served on committees for each other’s students. To work with Day, Klasek and McKinnon just made sense, Theg said, because he was so familiar with Inoue’s research.
“It’s a tribute to Kentaro that all three students decided to keep their existing projects rather than start new ones,” Theg said. “They were good projects — Kentaro had really thought about what was important in the field.”'
It takes a village
The grad students acknowledged that what Theg did was no easy task, accepting established students and meeting with them weekly.
“All three of us are grateful for what Professor Theg did, taking us on,” Day said. “It must have been very difficult to start thinking about new projects that weren’t originally his, but he did a great job and pushed us through to publish and graduate.”
Klasek added: “Professor Theg was an important part of being able to continue research. He was a solid sounding board, a great source of support and a great mentor for the last two-thirds of my Ph.D.”
The Department of Plant Sciences also invested in the students to help them finish theirs and Inoue’s research. Chairs Joe DiTomaso and later, Gail Taylor, along with the chief administrative officer, Dee Madderra, arranged to continue the students’ support until they graduated, including travel funding.
“We wanted to do what was right — whatever we could to make sure Philip, Lucas and Laura were well taken care of,” Madderra said. “We hoped that with the department’s support, it would help them move through the transition.”
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