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Postdoc killed during robbery in Mexico

A memorial service will be held at MIT on January 27 for post doctoral associate Constantine Giannitsis, who was stabbed to death and robbed of $8 in cash, traveler's checks, credit cards and his passport while on vacation in Taxco, Mexico.

The Greek Embassy in Washington said Mexican police arrested and charged three teenagers -- ages 15, 16 and 17 -- last Wednesday after surrounding their house. The Associated Press reported that a knife was also seized.

The embassy said Dr. Giannitsis, 29, was taking photographs in an alley in the historical section of the city when the youths confronted him at about 3:30pm on December 31. Dr. Giannitsis scuffled with the assailants and was stabbed in the chest, near his heart. He made his way out of the alley to the sidewalk, where he collapsed.

Husband and wife physicians from San Antonio, TX, sightseeing with a niece, a nephew and their three small children, discovered Dr. Giannitsis in the street, still alive but bleeding profusely, his lungs collapsed. Moises Bucay, a cardiologist, tended to Dr. Giannitsis at the scene. "You can't turn away when you see something like that," said his wife, Vivian, a dermatologist, who went through Dr. Giannitsis's wallet and discovered an MIT identification card, a Massachusetts ID that said he was a Greek citizen, and his health insurance card.

Moises Bucay rode to the hospital in an ambulance with Dr. Giannitsis, who was pronounced dead a short time later.

Dr. Giannitsis completed his thesis in the fall and was scheduled to receive his PhD in earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences (EAPS) on February 21. His father, Anastassios Giannitsis, is Greece's Minister of Labor and Social Affairs and a professor of economics at the University of Athens. He immediately went to Mexico when he learned of his son's death.

The embassy said Constantine Giannitsis and a friend were en route from Mexico City to Acapulco when they stopped to visit Taxco, a picturesque resort area. The friends had parted during their sightseeing and Dr. Giannitsis was alone when he was attacked.

The MIT memorial for Dr. Giannitsis is scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 27 from 4-6pm at the MIT Chapel. Contact the International Students Office at x3-3795 for details.

"Constantine was a wonderfully kind and engaging individual, passionate about so many things," said Associate Dean for Graduate Students Danielle Guichard-Ashbrook, acting director of the ISO. "He would frequently stop by the International Office, just to chat casually with staff members about his many interests -- filmmaking, politics, travel. I know that his academic endeavors here brought him much joy, but he loved participating in the social life of the community as well. Our deepest sympathies go to his family in Greece and to his many friends and colleagues here at MIT."

His friends and fellow graduate students remember Dr. Giannitsis as a scientist who combined keen physical insight and superior mathematical skills. He also had a wide variety of interests -- movies, politics, sports, photography, cooking -- and enjoyed the cosmopolitan lifestyle at MIT and in Boston.

Postdoctoral associate Jeff Scott of EAPS and Dr. Giannitsis came to MIT at the same time. They shared an office for six and a half years and became good friends.

"Constantine was the rare combination of someone who worked extremely hard and was extremely bright," Dr. Scott recalled. "He helped me immensely during our early years, as his background in math and physics (and ability) was superior to mine, and he never got tired of answering my questions. He was confident and self-assured, but was also willing to laugh at himself. I think if he could see me writing such effusive praise for him, he would just roll his eyes, but I really haven't exaggerated. He will be sorely missed by all who knew him."

Gerard Roe and Nili Harnik also knew Dr. Giannitsis for more than six years. Both were graduate assistants with him under Professor Richard Lindzen, who was Dr. Giannitsis's thesis advisor. They said jointly: "It took a while for Constantine to get used to MIT and for MIT to get used to Constantine. Always in search of a good argument, he relished taking a strong opinion on almost any topic. But with a relaxed demeanor, and an engaging and generous sense of humor, he made and kept many good friends in the department. He loved the diversity of the department, and it seemed rare that he was not talking to foreign students in their native language.

"No words are ever adequate to sum up a life. But I think that for those who knew Constantine, he will live on in the memories of a hundred different moments. We are fortunate to be enriched by his having touched our lives."

Dr. Giannitsis was a member of the Hellenic Students Association and sponsored a 1999 concert of Cuban music. He was a gifted photographer and an active participant in demonstrations protesting atrocities against the Serbian people in 1999.

"Unfortunately, we tend too often to forget how precious a human life is," said Aleksandar Kojic, president of the MIT Organization of Serbian Students from 1999-2000. "I remember Constantine as being a quiet, modest and humble person, possessing the age-old qualities almost forgotten in today's world. Yet in showing that actions speak louder than any words, he was always there to lend help and support in difficult times. He was indeed a hero and a true friend."

Dr. Giannitsis came to MIT in 1994 after he received his undergraduate degree from the University of Athens. He defended his thesis, "Non-Linear Saturation of Vertically Propagating Rossby Waves," on September 14. He planned to return to Greece in June to join the army to fulfill his military obligation. Dr. Giannitsis was born in West Berlin, Germany, on June 19, 1971, and raised in Kifissia, Greece.

In addition to his father, he is survived by his mother, Anna, and a younger brother, Andreas. His father, who arrived in Mexico on January 2, returned to Greece with his son's body last Thursday. A funeral service was held in Athens on Friday.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 10, 2001.

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