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Promising Rice professor dies during mountain climbing trip

Updated 02:07 p.m., Thursday, July 19, 2012
  • Adilet Imambekov / Rice University

    Adilet Imambekov

    / Rice University


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Rice University physics professor and researcher Adilet Imambekov, whose passions included quantum mechanics and extreme mountaineering, died Wednesday while on a climbing trip in his native Kazakhstan. He was 30.

Imambekov died in his tent at base camp below Khan Tengri, a massive ice pyramid on the border of Kyrgyzstan and China - a well-known peak in the world of Asian mountaineering. The cause of death was not immediately known.

He was on an extended trip to his homeland and decided to include a climb of a 23,000-feet peak. The base camp was at 17,300 feet, his wife told university officials in an email. He was found in his tent by a climbing guide.

Shocked by news

Faculty and friends at Rice were stunned by the passing of someone in prime physical condition who also was in the prime of his academic career.

"He had a tremendous influence on our department and many people around the world," said Tom Killian, chairman of the physics and astronomy department. "His loss will be felt very deeply."

Killian said Imambekov, who was married and had two children, was an avid climber, marathon runner and cyclist.

"He was very intense, and everything he did, he did to excel," Killian said. "He was part of the cycling team here, and there was another member of the faculty that he ran marathons with. He didn't stand still a lot.

"You would see him cycling into campus on a Saturday and carrying his expensive bike up the stairs to his office. He had a passion for physical competition and strenuous activity. People were in awe of what he was able to do."

Imambekov came to Rice in 2009 from Harvard, where he had been doing post-doctoral research for two years. He received his bachelor's of science degree in physics and applied mathematics from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology and a doctorate in physics from Harvard.

He recently received a pair of prestigious awards. In 2010 he was awarded a Sloan Research Fellowship, which supports the work of gifted young scientists. And last year he received a National Science Foundation CAREER Award, the purpose of which is to back young scientists who are expected to become leaders in their field.

'Tremendous influence'

"He had a tremendous influence on our department and many people around the world," Killian said. "He was a foremost expert in studying what is known as a reduced dimensional system, where atoms are confined so tightly they can only move in one direction, such as on a wire or a carbon nanotube.

"He was such a brilliant person that his prime excitement was to gain a deep understanding of the natural world. He was always pushing himself to explore experiences in a way the average person would not, whether it's climbing the highest mountains or explaining how single atoms behave when they are held by a laser at a billionth of a degree above absolute zero."

A funeral is planned for the weekend in Almaty, Kazakhstan.


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