Iulia Hanczarek was coming into her prime as a chemist and researcher at Portland State University. She had dreams of a doctoral degree and missions to space. At just 39 years old, she had a lot of important discoveries ahead of her. Staff at the university describe her as “brilliant”.
But just after midnight on Tuesday her life was cut short when a man chose to drive his car while drunk and hit and killed her as she walked home in southwest Portland. According to police, Ivan Cam was driving approximately 50 miles per hour prior to hitting Hanczarek. Cam told crash investigators the window of his car “suddenly exploded” and he didn’t even know what he’d hit. He now faces charges of manslaughter, DUI, and reckless driving.
“Iulia was just beginning her scientific career, and this is a huge loss.”
— Jay Nadeau, associate professor of physics at PSU
“It’s such a sad, senseless loss for PSU,” university spokesperson Christina Williams shared with me in an email this morning. “Portland State is heartbroken to hear about the tragic loss of one of our young and brilliant lab managers. It is deeply sad to learn about the loss of a precious life in a preventable traffic accident.”
Jay Nadeau, an associate professor of physics at PSU and head of the Nadeau Lab, has lost not just a friend, but a pillar of her laboratory. “Iulia was the first full-time person to join my lab and basically helped to build it from scratch,” she shared with me yesterday.
Nadeau met Hanczarek a few months before she started as a PSU faculty member in 2017. “I met Iulia while house shopping and getting ready to move my lab,” she said. “She was sitting on the steps of the Science Research and Teaching Center chatting with another student about how they would need to find jobs after they graduated. I said, ‘Hey, look me up if you need a job! I’m new and hiring!”
Hanczarek was a chemistry major and Nadeau needed a chemist for several of the studies she was working on. Nadeau’s lab studies the motility of microbial life (motility is the ability of an organism to move independently, using metabolic energy). With Hanczarek’s help, the lab studied microbes on Europa, a moon of Jupiter that’s 390 million miles from earth. “The first project we did together involved seeing whether fluorescent dyes used to label bacteria could survive under Europa conditions,” Nadeau shared.
After that project, Hanczarek focused her work on the swimming patterns of marine bacterium and how their movement was affected by simulated microgravity. She dreamed of testing her hypothesis in real microgravity conditions and she and Nadeau had just applied for a research grant to send an experiment to the International Space Station. Hanczarek had published several papers and was just beginning her scientific career.
“This is a huge loss,” Nadeau said.
Given the location where Hanczarek was hit — on Barbur near SW Parkhill, an unfriendly, car-centric area owned and managed by the Oregon Department of Transportation — I asked Nadeau if perhaps she was biking and her bike just hadn’t been found. I couldn’t imagine someone walking there at that time of night. Nadeau said Hanczarek loved to walk.
“She liked to work in the evenings, and to decompress she would take long walks,” Nadeau shared. “She thought nothing of walking seven miles home several times a week.”
Hanczarek immigrated with her family to the United States from Romania when she was a young girl. After growing up in the California Bay Area, she and her family moved to Oregon. She has a sister who lives in Portland and her parents live in Rainier, Oregon.
Hanczarek lived in the Arnold Creek neighborhood, just a few miles from where she was hit on Wednesday. Where Barbur Boulevard meets SW Parkhill Drive might have been the most dangerous part of her walk home.
“It’s very wide and scary to walk across.”
— Eric Wilhelm
Southwest Portland resident Eric Wilhelm has ridden and documented street safety concerns in this area for several years. “There is no sidewalk along the roadway, but people often walk in the bike lane or in the mud next to the curb,” he shared via email this morning. “The crosswalks at Parkhill are unmarked and the posted speed is 45 mph there. It’s very wide and scary to walk across, but I do often see people walking here. There have been at least a few crashes in this stretch.”
A Barbur Road Safety Audit published by the Oregon Department of Transportation in 2015 mentioned one other fatal crash at this location in the 10 years between 2004 and 2014. That tragedy also involved someone walking who walk killed by someone driving too fast while drunk.
There’s a TriMet bus stop at Parkhill and Barbur. Hanczarek might have been leaving the stop prior to the collision. Page 79 of ODOT’s audit describes access to that stop as “challenging”. “Discussions” were had between ODOT officials and TriMet about removing the bus stops, but nothing ever came of them.
I visited the crash location late last night in similar conditions that Hanczarek would have experienced. Even with very few people out driving, their high speeds mixed with the expanse of the roadway and lack of safe space for walking, caused a lot of anxiety.
Wilhelm thinks many drunk drivers opt for Barbur instead of adjacent the I-5 freeway to avoid police and other drivers. He feels ODOT should have done more to make Barbur safe based on the recommendations from their own audit. “I’m really sad that the police report frames this as a case of drunk driving, because it’s the very badly neglected infrastructure which invited this fatal crash to happen,” he said. Instead of waiting for the SW Corridor megaproject, Wilhelm believes, “Barbur needs an interim road diet. That should have been the obvious response to the audit, but ODOT only did the lowest-hanging fruit of bike lanes and some flashing beacons.”
For the rest of Hanczarek’s lab partners, there’s an uneasy sense that it could have been any one of them. Nadeau herself is a daily bike commuter and the entire lab would go on runs and walks together. “If anything good comes of this,” Nadeau said, “it will be that I am buying reflective vests for the whole group now. Vulnerable road users should be extra vigilant during the quarantine. Unlike a zombie movie, there are still cars on the road, and many seem to think they’re the only ones out there.”
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and firstname.lastname@example.org
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