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University Honors 2012 Usibelli Award Recipients


Fairbanks, Alaska—The University of Alaska Fairbanks has announced recipients of the 2012 Emil Usibelli 
Distinguished Teaching, Research and Public Service Awards. Debendra Das, professor of engineering and 
mines in the College of Engineering and Mines, received the teaching award; Sergei Avdonin, professor 
of mathematics and statistics in the College of Natural Science and Mathematics, received the research 
award; and Kenji Yoshikawa, research professor at the Institute of Northern Engineering, received the 
service award. All three were honored at a reception Tuesday at the UA Museum of the North.

Das first joined UAF in 1984 as an assistant professor of mechanical engineering. In addition to his 
excellence in teaching, Das’ contributions in the area of student mentorship and involving them in his 
research have been extraordinary, according to CEM dean Doug Goering.

“He has worked to include many undergraduate students in his research and helped them reap the rewards of 
his work via publications and paper presentations,” wrote Goering in his nomination letter for Das. 
“Deben’s highest priority has clearly been to enhance the experience of students through efforts that 
extent well beyond the traditional bounds of the classroom.”

Over the years, Das has been recognized for his work as an advisor, including the UAF Carol Feist 
Outstanding Advisor Award in both 2003-2004 and 2005-2006. In 2006, he received the national Student 
Section Advisor Award from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and, in 2007, the ASME Dedicated 
Service Award.

Goering also praised Das for his commitment to graduate students.

“Several times he has ‘rescued’ graduate studentsfrom failure and worked tirelessly to ensure their 
success,” wrote Goering. “In every case that I am aware of he was able to successfully turn around the 
academic programs of these students and lead them to a UAF graduate degree and careers in industry.”

Das holds a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Brown University and a doctorate in mechanical 
engineering from University of Rhode Island.

Avdonin has built a distinguished career in mathematics research. His current research focuses on 
mathematical studies for glaciology and he has developed new methods that offer a major step toward 
predictive glacier models, which are important in the study of glacier-climate interactions, ice-core 
dating and assessment of natural hazards.

Avdonin began his career in the late 1970s at the department of mathematical sciences at St. Petersburg 
State University in Russia, where he rose to the position of professor in 1991. He spent time as professor 
and chair of the department of mathematics at St. Petersburg University of Economics and Engineering and 
as a senior research fellow at The Flinders University of South Australia. Prior to joining UAF in 2001, 
he served a year as a visiting professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

“Avdonin’s international reputation immediately improved UAF’s stature in mathematics,” wrote nominator 
and colleague, John Rhodes. “His presence with the department of mathematical sciences helped it focus 
more clearly on its research mission. By quiet example, Avodnin has helped set the research tone and 
encouraged a remarkably high productivity rate for the department.”

Avdonin’s publication record includes more than 35 peer-reviewed articles since coming to UAF. Prior to 
that, he authored nearly 70 peer-reviewed articles.

“This publication record is very impressive by mathematical norms, since one quality paper a year can 
easily be all a top researcher can produce,” Rhodes stated.

Avdonin received his master’s degree in physics and mathematical physics, his doctorate in mathematics 
and his doctor of science degree inmathematics from St. Petersburg State University in Leningrad.

Since arriving at UAF in 1999, Yoshikawa has launched a research outreacheffort on the study of permafrost 
for students and teachers in rural Alaska, Canada, Russia and other countries.

Yoshikawa has created a comprehensive network of close to 200 communitiesand schools to monitor the state 
of permafrost across the circumpolar North. He has traveled to villages around the state to install 
permafrost temperature monitoring instruments, known as “frost tubes,”and worked with local students and 
teachers to have them monitor and record the data collected from the tubes. When he visits the communities,
 heexplains his work to community members and teachers and instructs students in the classroom with 
self-created manuals and materials.

“The effort not only illustrates the joy of scientific discovery to children, it literally transforms them 
into engaged scientists,”wrote nominator Bill Schnabel, director of the UAF Water and Environmental 
Research Center.

Yoshikawa’s outreach methods are known for their originality. He created a superhero, Tunnel Man, to help 
get students more excited about the science of permafrost and has introduced them to Tunnel Man through 
YouTube videos and comic books.

“Kenji has been a huge supporter of my students, our school science program and a model of encouragement 
to many of my rural students,” wrote Robbie Everett, former science teacher for Kotzebue Middle/HighSchool. 
“Because of Kenji, many more now really do love science.”

Other recent outreach endeavors include developing an ice-cellar monitoring program in Alaska whaling 
communities to see how permafrost-cooled food-storage chambers may be changing and developing a magazine 
featuring village temperature data, frost depth and interviews with elders.

Yoshikawa received both his master’s and doctorate degree in environmental science from Hokkaido 
The Emil Usibelli Distinguished Teaching, Research and Public Service Awards are considered one of the 
university’s most prestigious awards. They represent UAF’s tripartite mission and are funded annually 
from a $600,000 endowment established by Usibelli Coal Mine in 1992.

Each year, a committee that includes members from the faculty, the student body and a member of the UA 
Foundation Board of Trustees evaluates the nominees. Each of the winners receives a cash award of $10,000.

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