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Three College of Chemistry graduate students die in tragic freeway accident

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Benjamin Boussert, Jason Choy and Guilia Adesso were killed in a car crash on July 16, 2005

By Robert Sanders, Media Relations | 21 July 2005

Private campus memorial services are being planned for three University of California, Berkeley, graduate students in chemistry who were the apparent victims of a tragic freeway accident last Saturday morning on Interstate-80 in Berkeley.

The students were Benjamin P. Boussert, 27, a sixth-year graduate student from Baton Rouge, La.; Jason L. Choy, 29, of Bowie, Md., a student completing his seventh year of a Ph.D. program in chemistry and molecular and cell biology; and Giulia A. Adesso, 26, a visiting scholar from Italy conducting research at UC Berkeley while pursuing a Ph.D. from the University of Lecce.

On July 16, the three students were passengers in a Toyota that slammed into a burning truck that had crossed the center divider into the east-bound lanes on I-80 near Ashby Avenue at around 2:30 a.m. The Alameda County coroner's office has yet to confirm their identities, pending DNA analysis and comparison of dental records.

"We as a college want to express our heartfelt condolences to the families of these young people," said Charles Harris, dean of the College of Chemistry. "We cannot comprehend the pain that they must feel, but our thoughts will always be with them and with the friends and co-workers of our students."

The college will hold a private memorial event for the three students on Friday, July 22. On Aug. 20, an additional memorial event - for Choy - will be held so that his parents, who live on the East Coast, are able to attend. Boussert and Choy will be awarded posthumous Ph.D.s by Mary Ann Mason, dean of the Graduate Division.

According to Boussert's mother, Anne, the three had attended a dance party in San Francisco and were returning to Berkeley when the accident occurred. Her son, who was at the wheel of his Toyota, had worked since October 1999 on a Ph.D. in nanostructures with Paul Alivisatos, UC Berkeley professor of chemistry, after graduating from Louisiana State University with a degree in chemistry and chemical engineering.

Boussert's Ph.D. thesis topic concerned the spectroscopy of single nanocrystals. Boussert's mother said her son had become involved with the Union of Concerned Scientists and planned to go into science and public policy after receiving his Ph.D.

Adesso, a native of Bari, Italy, had worked in Alivisatos' laboratory since February 2004 through an exchange program with the University of Lecce. She received her M.S. in physics from the University of Bari in 2002 with a thesis on quantum cascade lasers and was working on her Ph.D. in physics at UC Berkeley through the National Nanotechnology Laboratories, which is affiliated with the Department of Physics at the University of Lecce.

"Both had a deep internal standard about what is really good research, and they were determined to do it right," Alivisatos said. "They weren't going to settle for a second best experiment."

Boussert and Adesso had different strengths and different approaches to their research, he noted. Despite having completed research in collaboration with other students, Boussert insisted on conducting one significant experiment on his own and extended his stay at UC Berkeley to complete this without the help of others in the lab, said Alivisatos. Giulia was often distraught about her research results, he said, but she always got great data and had begun discussions with materials scientists to put together a theory to explain her results, which involved measuring the elastic response of hollow nanoparticles when poked and pushed.

"This is a loss for the whole group," Alivisatos said.

Adesso's Italian advisor, Professor Roberto Cingolani, director of the National Nanotechnology Laboratory in Lecce, noted that he had met with Adesso in Italy less than two weeks ago to hear about her first year of research at UC Berkeley. At the time, she told him that she wanted to remain and work at UC Berkeley. In fact, he said, she planned to return to California immediately to conduct new experiments, despite her need to go back to Italy for her brother's wedding on July 22. He said he urged her instead to stay in Italy and avoid the extra travel.

"She did not accept .... She wanted to go back to Berkeley immediately because she wanted to finish some important experiment," Cingolani said in an e-mail note. "I think this tells a lot about her passion for research and for Berkeley."

Choy had worked in the laboratory of Carlos Bustamante, professor of molecular and cell biology and of physics and chemistry, since his graduation from the College of William and Mary in 1998. In his research, Choy used optical tweezers to measure the forces generated when an enzyme - in this case, a bacterial protease - snips a protein.

"What I will never forget about Jason is his integrity and his dedication to science, " said Bustamante. "He was a wonderful student, humble, eager to help others. It is impossible to think of another member of our lab whose death would affect us more."

Bustamante had met with Choy late Friday afternoon and learned for the first time about an experiment Choy had been working on relentlessly and had finally achieved results he was willing to share with his advisor.

"In the process of getting this experiment to work, he ended up doing and publishing the results of three independent experiments, which would have been good enough to graduate," he said, noting that Choy had already begun writing his thesis. "But he never even talked about this experiment until Friday, the very night his life ended, when he felt he had broken the problem open."

According to his mother, Norma, he hadn't "come up for air since arriving in Berkeley. It's a very intense place." Nevertheless, she said her son liked biking in his spare time, and that he was restoring a vintage bicycle.

Boussert, who lived in Oakland, is survived by his parents, Anne and Christian Boussert of Baton Rouge, and a brother, Joel, a third-year law student at Tulane University.

Choy, who lived in Kensington, is survived by his parents, Norma and Lawrence Choy of Bowie, Md., and a sister, Allison, of Ann Arbor, Mich.

Adesso, who lived in Berkeley, is survived by her parents, Carlo Adesso and Paola Maria Palombella of Bari; a sister, Eleonora Adesso; and a brother, Giuseppe Adesso.

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