Student remembered for his enthusiasm, intellect

Mikhail Vinaykin, a Ph.D. candidate in the chemistry department who was known for his “contagious curiosity,” died in a motorcycle accident on Exposition Boulevard on Tuesday morning. He was 24.

Vinaykin grew up in Russia and attended St. Petersburg State University, where he received his undergraduate degree in physics. He moved to the United States to begin his graduate program in chemistry at USC in 2009.

Scholar · His colleagues remembered Mikhail Vinaykin a student with an engaged mind who was on his way to becoming a gifted scientist. – Photo courtesy of Jahan Dawlaty

Professors endearingly referred to Vinaykin as “Misha” and described him as an enthusiastic student who had a knack for the sciences.

“I’ve been around for a long time so there’s not many things that surprise me,” said Professor Alex Benderskii, Vinaykin’s research adviser. “But Misha surprised me almost on a daily basis, and that’s really special.”

Vinaykin was in his fourth year of the program. His research focused on ultrafast nonlinear spectroscopy with a focus on hydrogen bonding and water. Vinaykin’s peers said they remembered his dedication and a commitment that had very few limits.

“Misha was highly motivated and very interested in science and knowledge,” said Fadel Shalhout, a graduate student who worked with Vinaykin. “If he experienced problems in research he spent all night in the lab figuring it out.”

Professor Jahan Dawlaty, a first assistant professor of chemistry, said he was immediately impressed with Vinaykin when he came to USC. Vinaykin inquired the most and seemed the most engaged in discussions, he said.

“Misha asked questions until he had the right answer, which was the sign of a good scientist,” Dawlaty said.

Vinaykin was Dawlaty’s teaching assistant for his upper-level chemistry class this semester. He connected with the juniors and seniors he taught, Dawlaty said. The day after Vinaykin’s death, Dawlaty began his class with a minute of silence.

“He certainly did have a fan club of students because some [students] only attended his discussion session,” Dawlaty said. “Many students were quite sad and shocked.”

Students outside the chemistry department also admired his curiosity.

“He was always asking questions and he was eager to learn more about the French language,” said Annie Capaldi, an undeclared freshman in his French class. “I think we all gained a little bit by being in the class with him and witnessing his passion for learning.”

Vinaykin, in addition to sharing his passions for the sciences, also had an infectious personality. Graduate students who studied with him said he had a good sense of humor and a love for travel.

“In his 24 years of living,” Shalhout said, “he probably experienced as much as a 100-year-old man. He lived life to the fullest.”

Vinaykin’s death has left a vacancy in the department that will not be easily filled, Benderskii said.

“He absolutely had a big role in the chemistry department,” Benderskii said. “Everyone knew him, and he had a lot of friends and a lot of faculty knew him and were enthusiastic about his prospects.”

Columbia University and other top institutions were courting him for his two- to three-year post-doctoral work, according to Benderskii.

Vinaykin’s parents are flying into Los Angeles on Thursday from Russia. Plans for a memorial service are pending.