A passion for science and life: Colleagues remember postdoc Justin Jankunas

Justin Jankunas’s passion for science and his animated nature when talking about his work are evident as he explains molecular dynamics results from Stanford’s Zare Lab to prospective first-year graduate students during a recruiting weekend. (Photo courtesy of Max Osipov, Stanford University

Justin Jankunas’s passion for science and his animated nature when talking about his work are evident as he explains molecular dynamics results from Stanford’s Zare Lab to prospective first-year graduate students during a recruiting weekend.
(Photo courtesy of Max Osipov, Stanford University

Sandia postdoctoral appointee Justin Jankunas died in late May at the age of 30. The brilliant young scientist who was at the very beginning of what promised to be a consequential career, died after suffering head injuries in a crash of his racing motorcycle at a speedway in Southern California.

The Lithuanian-born Justin had been at Sandia since February. In that short time he had already touched many lives and impressed one and all with his passion for science, his creativity in the laboratory, and his love for his work. Says Craig Taatjes, Justin’s manager for the few months he was here: “Justin was working with David Chandler in Dave’s laboratory studying the fundamental dynamics of molecular collisions and chemical reactions. He clearly loved the pursuit of knowledge and was excited to find new insights into the mechanisms of molecular physics, as well as to discover new connections among different areas of study. His generous enthusiasm was not contained by his own research but poured over into his interest in his colleagues’ work. His insights and excitement will be missed.”

Dave remembers Justin as “a true scientist and intellectual.”

“My favorite part of working with him,” Dave says, “was his sheer joy of discovery coupled with his love of doing experiments. . . . We would have a wide-ranging discussion about different projects to do in our lab and often talked about science philosophy. Justin’s work ethic was infectious and he would give me an ‘evil eye’ whenever I told him I would not be coming to the lab to work on a weekend.”

Colleague Mark Jaska shares an email he received from Justin not long ago: “Mark, Let me know when you are ready to do some great stuff in the lab! Thanks, Justin.”

Says Mark, “That sums up a lot about Justin: The energetic manner, the excitement about doing science, the eagerness to get in the lab and do experiments . . . After collecting some interesting new data, he was anxious to talk about it and run the calculations on it to make sure it was what he thought it was. He would really light up during those discussions.”

‘Invigorating’

Even before Justin signed on at Sandia, Jeff Steil had met him at several professional conferences, where the two enjoyed talking about life and science. “Justin was an invigorating scientist to work with,” Jeff says, “humble but insistent, and every recent question he had was about getting tools to interpret experimental results he had acquired in mere months.” With Justin gone, says Jeff, “We are missing out on a great part of working at the CRF [Combustion Research Facility] that we were just getting to know about.”

Justin was a man of many dimensions. As devoted as he was to science, no laboratory in the world was big enough to contain all his passions. Max Osipov, who became friends with Justin in 2008 when they both matriculated as PhD chemistry students at Stanford, says, “Justin was a world-ranked checkers player and wrote for an Italian publication on the game. He played billiards and loved relating the game to physical phenomena he observed in his research. He enjoyed high-performance cars, motorcycles, and racing. In all things, Justin committed himself fully to his interests. If he did something, he did it with all his heart and to the best of his abilities.

“In the laboratory, Justin was a brilliant scientist,” says Max, “his academic and professional achievements speak volumes of his abilities. He never had a shortage of ideas, and always came up with innovative solutions to all problems.”

‘One-of-a-kind individual’

Max, who is still at Stanford, reflects on the empty place Justin leaves in many hearts. “Both being immigrants from the former USSR,” Max says, “we quickly found a lot to bond over. Our shared interests for photography, science, philosophy, and running led to many adventures and memories.

“Justin was the guy you could call for help or advice any time. Whether it was a ride to the airport at the crack of dawn, a manuscript that needed editing, or his presence at a friend’s wedding 6,000 miles away, Justin was always there for those he considered his friends. He was a one-of-a-kind individual.”

Craig cites one of Justin’s more appealing and infec- tious traits, one that several friends and colleagues also commented on: “He was genuinely interested and excited about what other people were working on. . . . He was tremendously eager to figure things out, and he was highly generous with his enthusiasm, engaging with other CRF research groups even in the short time he was at Sandia.

“The last time I saw Justin was a few days before his accident,” Craig recalls. “He burst into my office to show me molecular beam scattering data that he had just taken, looking at collisions that had left different amounts of energy in the molecule. He was excited because for one final rotational state the data beauti- fully matched a theoretical prediction, and even more excited because the data for another rotational state were clearly different than the theoretical prediction.”

Justin, who received his doctorate in chemistry from Stanford in 2013, came to Sandia after being named a postdoctoral fellow at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL), in Lausanne, Switzerland. He earned his bachelor of science degree in chemistry at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada. He is survived by his father and his sister.

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