Celebrating potential

Kumai was an outstanding scholar, and the scope and quality of his research at such a young age, had an enormous impact on academia. Also amazing was that he was born almost fully blind.

By Kyle Bournes

In August 2015, hard-working Yusuke Kumai (PhD ʼ13, Biology) did something out of character—he took a vacation.

He was living in France, having joined the Université de Paris as a recipient of a Marie Curie Incoming Fellowship in May, and decided to visit Scotland, home of the famous whisky distilleries that produced his beloved single malt scotch.

While hiking in a remote area of the Isle of Skye, Kumai tragically lost his way. He was found dead several days after he went missing. He was 29 years old.

Kumai was an outstanding scholar, and the scope and quality of his research at such a young age, had an enormous impact on academia. Also amazing was that he was born almost fully blind. He overcame the day-to-day challenges of living with a severe visual impairment through the help of surgery, corrective lenses and fantastic personal resolve.

His family, friends and colleagues were devastated by news of his death. As was Steve Perry, dean of the Faculty of Science, who had been Kumai’s PhD supervisor.

Perry quickly re-organized his schedule to fly out to be with Kumai’s family in Europe in the days following his death.

“Yusuke’s appetite for scientific discovery was insatiable. He blazed a trail through my laboratory that culminated in 17 published papers and several more that were ready to be submitted when he passed away,” says Perry. “Instead of watching his bright future unfold before us, we had to cope with the tragic loss of a unique and cherished friend and colleague. I will always admire and remember his brilliant mind, his humour and his wonderful quirkiness. I am so grateful for the time we spent together – I just wish it could have been longer.”

While Perry was in Europe, the Faculty of Science worked with the University of Ottawa’s Development Office to determine the best way to celebrate Kumai’s impact on academia and the enormous potential that he had as a researcher.

The result was the creation of the Yusuke Kumai Memorial Doctoral Thesis Prize. The $1,000 prize will be awarded annually to the most outstanding biology doctoral thesis. The goal of the prize is to encourage other young rising star researchers to carry on the legacy of outstanding scholarly impact that Yusuke Kumai embodied.

And it is quite a legacy to live up to. Kumai was known as a prolific, award-winning researcher and a truly remarkable student. He arrived on campus in 2008 to pursue an MSc degree, after completing his undergraduate studies at Vassar College. Perry noticed his potential almost immediately, and this promising young student quickly transferred into the PhD program.

Kumai completed his PhD in 2013, only five years after starting his graduate studies at the University of Ottawa. His doctoral research here led to 17 publications in top-quality international journals, including The Journal of Physiology, the Journal of Experimental Biology and the Journal of Endocrinology. He published an enormous amount of work from his thesis and was recognized by the University of Ottawa for his exceptional research achievements. In 2014, Kumai was awarded the Governor General’s Gold Medal, recognizing the most outstanding PhD thesis at the University.

His research led to two prestigious and highly competitive postdoctoral fellowships for Kumai. The first was the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science postdoctoral fellowship, which allowed him to continue his work at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University. The second award, the Marie Curie Incoming Fellowship, was what brought Kumai to France this past spring, joining the lab of Dr. Dominique Eladari at the Université de Paris. Kumai added three more publications to the body of literature during his time as a postdoctoral scholar.

A few days following his passing, friends and family gathered at the site of Kumai’s death to scatter his ashes. His ashes had been doused with a local scotch that he bought while on vacation.

Anyone wishing to celebrate Yusuke Kumai’s life is encouraged to make an online donation to the Yusuke Kumai Memorial Doctoral Thesis Prize.


Yusuke Kumai

Yusuke Kumai holding the Governor General’s Gold Medal in 2014.

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