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Commencement 2008: Kelly Nakamura, Viterbi's Valedictorian

May 15, 2008 — The science came easy to Viterbi School valedictorian Kelly Nakamura; the engineering was far more challenging. But nothing could break her ability to earn straight A's, semester after semester, even in the most demanding of chemical engineering classes, and graduate at the top of her class. 

Not only at the top of her class, but at the top of all graduating senior women at USC. And for that, Nakamura has won the 2008 Emma Josephine Bradley Bovard Award and a place on the Wall of Scholars in Leavey Library.
Kelly Nakamura, Viterbi School's 2008 valedictorian.

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With all of her recent accomplishments -- add the Archimedes Circle Award for outstanding achievement in scholarship to her accolades -- Nakamura isn't likely to rest long on her laurels. After a brief reprieve in her hometown of Honolulu, Hawaii, the newly minted chemical engineering graduate plans to head east to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, In mid-July to begin medical school.

"I think I kind of surprised my faculty adviser when I told him," she laughed.

She was drawn to the Mayo Clinic's philosophy of putting patients first.

"I guess you could call that the old-fashioned way of practicing medicine, but I don't many medical schools really teach that philosophy today," she said. "It suits me because I feel a great deal of compassion for people, especially when they are sick."

She leaves filled with exuberance and a great deal of affinity for USC and the academic environment in which she thrived for four years. After medical school, she said she'd like to return to L.A. and teach at a major medical center like the Keck School of Medicine of USC or UCLA.

"I had some great experiences here," she said. "And at Parkside, which was my home for four years, I made a lot of friends.

"I had the greatest mentors: my faculty mentor, Dr. Lee, and Dr. Elahe Nezami, who is in the Health Promotions Department," she said. "Dr. Nezami was at Parkside, where I was an RA [residential adviser], and became a good friend."

Nakamura found a sense of community, both on campus and in the dorms.

"I think I'm going to miss that feeling that I had at Parkside, like there were so many times, at 4 o'clock In the morning, when there was always someone around and it would just dawn on us that, 'oh my gosh, it's four o'clock in the morning and we're finally done,'" she said. "It's moments like that that I know I'll miss."

The most challenging times -- which usually occurred during finals -- are the times that she will miss the most, but they are the times that gave her the confidence and understanding to pursue her dream of going to medical school.

"I actually considered going Into pure science, like biochemistry, when I was a sophomore, but Dr. Lee kind of talked me out of it," she said. "Because the way the engineering degree is structured, you take a lot of science In the first years and more engineering later on, and I was dreading taking all the engineering classes, but it really helped because it forced all of us to work together. That was a really nice experience. I think it was really good."