From Microbiology to Environmental Engineering: Dr. Kaoru Ikuma’s Journey in Academia and Advocacy for Diversity of Thoughts

Dr. Kaoru Ikuma’s journey in academia is a testament to her unwavering determination and love for learning. Born in Japan, she spent a significant part of her childhood in the United States, igniting an early fascination with the diverse world around her. Pursuing her passion for biology and biochemistry, she obtained her undergraduate degrees before making a bold switch to environmental engineering, a field where she could merge her interests seamlessly.

Her thirst for knowledge led her to a profound love for research during her master’s degree, propelling her to pursue a Ph.D. from a different institution. As a dedicated researcher, she thrived in discovering new insights and delving into intricate details. Surpassing her passion for research, Dr. Ikuma discovered her profound joy in mentoring, nurturing meaningful connections with her students and peers. Embarking on postdoctoral positions to expand her expertise and research horizons, she eventually found her way to Iowa State University in 2015. In 2022, she achieved tenure, marking a pivotal milestone in her distinguished career.

A single class ignited her passion for the deep mysteries of environmental microbiology, a discipline with boundless potential and endless discoveries. As she ventured deeper into the realm of environmental engineering, Dr. Ikuma came to realize the profound impact this field has on everyday life, supporting wellbeing, health, and even survival. From a love for microbiology to the pursuit of environmental engineering, Dr. Ikuma found herself drawn to a vocation where her efforts would go beyond the limelight, serving as a silent guardian for society. The enchantment of environmental engineering lies in its ability to create seamless experiences in our lives, allowing us to open a tap and receive clean, safe water without a second thought.

“I wanted to be one of the people who are in the behind-the-scenes supporting society.”


This sense of purpose became all too real for Dr. Ikuma when she experienced the devastation of a powerful earthquake in Japan. The loss of running water for two months left an indelible mark, highlighting the immense importance of clean water in our daily lives. This experience resonated deeply as she began her journey in environmental engineering, reinforcing her commitment to being part of the force that safeguards society from such hardships.

In the words of Dr. Kaoru Ikuma, “Not having water and how very difficult it is to get clean water was something that always stuck with me and then kind of came back full circle when I started learning about environmental engineering. I realized that I wanted to be one of the people who are in the, the behind the scenes supporting society.”

Dr. Kaoru Ikuma brings a unique perspective to her field as an Asian woman in STEM field. She believes that the diversity of thought is a powerful asset, and her experiences have shown her that she thinks differently from many of her colleagues. In her view, this diversity of perspective is vital, especially in a field like environmental engineering, where the connections to society and human health are profound. Dr. Ikuma emphasizes the importance of women’s voices being heard and their perspectives considered in STEM fields, making her an inspiring advocate for diversity and inclusion.

In her own word’s Dr. Ikuma share, “”That diversity of thought is a good thing. And I think it’s important across STEM fields. But I really feel it in environmental engineering because we’re so tied into society and tied into human health and wellbeing that our perspective as women and women of color, women who see the world a little bit differently, is important to consider and important to be heard.”

Dr. Ikuma highlights an important point of creating an inclusive environment. It is vital, ensuring that diverse perspectives are valued and heard, without trying to homogenize individuals who may look different but think the same. To achieve this, a concerted effort is needed from all stakeholders, including students, faculty, staff, parents, and industry partners, to emphasize the significance of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Dr. Ikuma emphasizes that this conscious effort must be clearly articulated and upheld at all levels of education and professional settings.

“We’re that is entirely missing the point. I don’t, I think it’s okay for people to look the same, but have different opinions, that’s actually even more important or, you know, will help a lot.”

Dr. ikuma

From microbiology to environmental engineering, Dr. Ikuma’s unwavering passion for learning and discovery has led her to advocate for inclusive environments and diversity of thought. As an Asian woman in STEM, her inspiring story highlights the importance of fostering progress and innovation through embracing diversity in academia.

Experience the full conversation with Professor Kaoru Ikuma in the interview video! This written blog offers just a glimpse of our insightful discussion, where she shares her journey, motivations, and perspectives as a woman of color in the STEM field. Don’t miss the opportunity to hear directly from her about the importance of diversity of thought and creating an inclusive environment in academia and beyond. Click above to watch the full interview and gain deeper insights into Professor Ikuma’s remarkable work and experiences.