Beakers and Bikes
Two passions permeated Kentaro Inoue during his days as a postdoctoral fellow at Noble Research Institute - plant science research and rocketing past plants while mountain biking.
As a youth in his native Japan, Inoue developed a love for both research and biking. While he rode headlong into his life's work first, spending nine years at the University of Tokyo, where he earned a bachelor's degree, a master's degree and his doctorate in pharmaceutical sciences, Inoue forged a unique perspective on life, viewing it at once through test tubes and beakers in the laboratory and then again from the seat of his bicycle.
"Biking and research may seem very different," Inoue said. "But both require you to be focused, patient and determined to be successful. Each offers different rewards, but they are equally enjoyable to me."
Inoue quickly matured into a skilled plant scientist focused on molecular biology and biochemistry, in particular the proteins that mediate various biochemical reactions within plant cells. Soon after he completed his dissertation in 1996, Inoue began his search for a postdoc position. He turned to National Academy Member and University of California-Davis Professor Emeritus Eric Conn, Ph.D., for advice. Conn was a personal mentor Inoue met in 1995 after a scientific research conference in Chicago.
"Dr. Conn was adamant that the Noble Research Institute was a perfect fit," Inoue said. "He was right."
After a successful interview, Inoue joined the Noble Research Institute in the spring of 1997 and spent two years working with Rick Dixon, Ph.D., Plant Biology Division Director, before moving to Michigan State University for further postdoctoral research and then becoming an assistant professor in plant sciences at UC-Davis in fall of 2002.
On a picturesque California day, Inoue stood on the balcony of the UCDavis Plant Science building, preparing for a presentation and recalling life in the southern Great Plains.
"It was a good time in my life," he said. "I'll never forget my years at the Noble Research Institute."
Building off his Ph.D. thesis, Inoue studied the role of specific enzymes involved in the biosynthesis of lignin - a major component of cell walls. Lignin is an important area of biochemistry research at the Noble Research Institute, as Noble scientists are focused on improving the digestibility of forages - plants used for hay or grazing by livestock - to improve production agriculture.
"Dr. Inoue was one of those postdocs you point to as an example of a great postdoc," Dixon said. "His research was thorough and well executed, and you couldn't have asked for a more congenial colleague. He is a talented researcher and a phenomenal professor."
Even great postdocs get homesick, though. Inoue admittedly longed for the familiarity of Japan and buzz of Tokyo for the first few months, but found comfort and kinship in his fellow employees.
"The people at the Noble Research Institute made the transition much easier," he said. "Everybody from fellow postdocs and the other researchers to those in the administration offices lifted my spirits and helped me to feel at home. I wouldn't have made it without them."
And then there was Inoue's biking, an old friend that always made him feel right at home.
Inoue discovered a mountain biking group in Oklahoma City and immediately shipped in a bike from Japan. Upon its arrival, there was one immediate problem - the bike did not include an adapter that enabled him to air up the tires. He called a team member from his new group and waited for him to deliver the adapter.
"I just sat there and waited, wondering where he was. I thought he was just coming a short distance," Inoue said. "He finally arrived and dropped it off. I thanked him for his time and he left. I found out later he drove more than an hour-and-a-half to give me this adapter. He barely knew me, but he made such a great effort; that said a lot to me about the people in Oklahoma."
While Inoue enjoyed riding with his new mountain biking group, he was still finding his stride with English.
"We could not always communicate verbally, but we'd find a nice view somewhere and stop, and we could share that - that's universal," he said.
Inoue's most remarkable biking feat came when he took part in an "enduro" race, which mixes difficult mountainous terrain with a 24-hour riding requirement. Usually teams of four alternate turns with only short breaks. Inoue completed the race by himself. Twice.
"It was something I wanted to accomplish. It was a personal goal and several people helped me along the way," said Inoue with an understated tone. While Inoue may shrug off the accomplishment, the story of his achievement remains famous in the Oklahoma biking community.
As a professor at UC-Davis, Inoue has now set aside his six bikes, only riding as a commuter or on jaunts with his friends. He spends his days as a researcher, teacher and mentor now, utilizing the skills he learned at the Noble Research Institute.
"If it wasn't for Eric Conn, Rick Dixon and many others at the Noble Research Institute, I would not be here," said Inoue, smiling as he looked out over a main campus thoroughfare filled with students whisking by on bikes. "I am grateful for my years at the Noble Research Institute. Those years provided me experiences I would not have had at any other institution."