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Graduate student dies in holiday mountain-climbing accident


Irina Libova -- Irka to her friends -- left her mark on the Gertler biology laboratory.

The second-year PhD student impressed her peers and teachers with her inventiveness, inquisitiveness and her ability to do outstanding research. She also decorated her work area and the margins of her research notes with sardonic observations in addition to smiling or frowning faces. The dispenser on her workbench in Rm 68-258 bears the following message: "Thou shalt not steal my tape."

Ms. Libova, a 23-year-old graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, will not return to the lab to complete her research in cell migration. She and her fianc�, Vladimir Smirnov, 29, and a companion, 42-year-old Ilia Krasic, were killed in a mountain-climbing accident in Mexico last month.

"She joined the lab last spring and she quickly demonstrated that she was one of our brightest students," said Assistant Professor Frank Gertler. "It's a big loss. I'll miss her personally and professionally. I'm disappointed that I won't get to see her develop into the fine scientist she would have become. She would have made a big contribution to the lab." He said Ms. Libova would be listed as an author on any paper written about the project she was working on.

Ms. Libova's group, which set out on Christmas Day to climb Mexico's highest peak, 18,700-foot Mt. Orizaba, was last seen on December 28. The next day, a search party of 25-30 volunteers started combing the area with no success. After some urging over the holiday weekend, helicopters joined the search.

"I was very gratified that several members of the MIT community and colleagues in Washington responded immediately to e-mail requesting assistance from the US and Mexican governments with the search," President Charles M. Vest said.

The climbers were discovered and removed by helicopters on January 2 on a ravine northeast of the peak.

Ms. Libova, who emigrated to the US from Russia with her family, was a popular member of the Russian Hussar Club, "a satirical, literary group of people," said Areg Danagoulian, who received the SB in physics last June. Mr. Danagoulian wished Ms. Libova luck on the eve of the expedition to Mexico and joked about the dire possibilities, a tradition among Russian climbers. "The next thing I hear are the grim details about their death," he said.

Dmitry Kulish, a postdoctoral fellow in chemistry at the Harvard Medical School, met Ms. Libova and Mr. Smirnov through mountain-climbing. As experienced climbers, he said, "the probability of their death on the Orizaba was equal to the probability of our death on the ski slope, a 10 billion-to-one chance. It is unfair, unbelievable and tragic. I cannot think about it. I miss them very much."

Ms. Libova's apartment on Binney Street in Cambridge was a gathering place for Russian �migr�s, among them Sophia Menn, a Brandeis University biologist who is doing clinical research at Beth Israel Medical Center. The women met two years ago when Irka arrived in Boston and a close friendship developed.

"She loved to live, learn, read, hike, climb and discover," said Ms. Menn. "She was in a hurry to experience everything there is to experience, to feel everything there is to feel. Often she told me, 'What is there to wait for? Got to live, feel and breathe today.' I learned a lot from her. I loved her, and I miss her a lot."

Ms. Libova is survived by her parents, Lucy and Alexander, and a sister, Olga, all of Mountain View, CA. A memorial service will be scheduled at MIT.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 12, 2000.

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