San Diego’s science, bicycling communities mourn 2 scientists struck, killed on consecutive days
Allen Hunter II and Swati Tyagi both came to San Diego to work in science; Hunter was killed June 22, and Tyagi was killed the next day
In a 30-hour span last month, two bicyclists were struck by vehicles and killed on San Diego County roadways.
One was a 75-year-old man born in Kansas, the other a 34-year-old woman born in India. Both called San Diego home, and it was science that drew them here after they earned doctorate degrees and other advanced training elsewhere.
The deaths of Allen Hunter II on June 22 in Solana Beach and Swati Tyagi on June 23 in La Jolla have shaken San Diego’s scientific and bicycling communities, prompting renewed calls for better bicycling infrastructure and more respectful motorists.
“It’s a choice to ride a bike,” Kyle Heiskala, board president and former interim executive director of BikeSD, said. “These are our friends, neighbors and families. “It’s terrifying when there are aggressive drivers ... I want everyone to slow down. We all have a responsibility when we’re driving. Someone’s life is in our hands.”
Stephan Vance, chair of the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition who worked for 36 years on transportation projects at the San Diego Association of Governments, said the dual “tragedies point to the need for us to rethink how we prioritize transportation spending at every level.”
“Of the things that create danger and risk, the number one thing is speed,” Vance said. “We need to rethink how we can re-engineer our roads to be safer.”
Family members and colleagues are also mourning the two lives lost.
“My dad was upbeat, he was optimistic, he was caring, he was funny, he always had a dad joke,” Allen Hunter III remembered in a phone interview Friday, July 2. “He was brilliant, efficient and hard working. He was also one of the most moral, ethical and decent human beings I’ve ever known.”
Allen Hunter II earned a physics degree from the Air Force Academy after growing up poor in rural Kansas. He and his sister were raised by their mother. Then, while serving full-time in the Air Force, Hunter earned a master’s degree in physics from Ohio State University and later a doctorate.
“He would wake up at 2 in the morning and spend four or five hours working on his Ph.D, then head to the office for a full day in the Air Force,” his son said. “He had an iron will. When he decided he needed to do something, he did it, and he did it immediately.”
Hunter left the Air Force in 1979, and in 1983, after a stint as leader of the Advanced Laser Development Group at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, he moved his wife, Janet, and his son to San Diego for a civilian job with the Western Research Corporation. Hunter stayed with the company — though it underwent several name changes — for nearly 30 years, retiring in 2010 from Trex Enterprises.
In retirement, he stayed active by biking regularly, and hiking in Mission Trails Regional Park. That included tackling the “5-Peak Challenge” in a single August day in 2017, at age 72. The challenge involves reaching the tops of Cowles Mountain, Pyles Peak, Kwaay Paay, South Fortuna and North Fortuna.
“He was an athlete and a military man,” his son said. “He could not abide being out of shape.”
Hunter was biking around 10:30 a.m. on June 22 when he was struck by a suspected impaired driver while riding on South Coast Highway 101 near Lomas Santa Fe Drive, according to the county Medical Examiner’s Office and Sheriff’s Department. He died later that evening at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla.
Deputies arrested the 21-year-old driver the same day in Encinitas on suspicion of gross vehicular manslaughter, felony hit and run resulting in death or injury and felony DUI causing great bodily injury, according to sheriff’s Lt. Amber Baggs.
The next day, around 4:20 p.m., Tyagi, a postdoctoral researcher at the Salk Institute, was riding her bicycle when she was struck from behind on North Torrey Pines Road near the intersection with Expedition Way and Revelle College Drive in La Jolla. The married mother of an 11-month-old son died at the scene.
“She was one of the smartest postdocs I’ve ever had in my lab,” Martin Hetzer, vice president and chief science officer at Salk, said in a phone interview Friday, July 2. Hetzer said Tyagi was good at everything, from conducting experiments to writing code to analyzing data, and bridged many different fields.
Others in Hetzer’s lab and at the Salk Institute would seek Tyagi out for technical questions, he said. He called her a generous person, a team player and “a true leader” who made his lab the most cohesive and collaborative it had ever been.
Hetzer said that just a month before her death, he had promoted Tyagi to a staff scientist position. He called her “very smart, very humble and super generous,” pointing to her GoFundMe page — which had raised nearly $57,000 for her husband and infant son as of Friday night, July 2 — as evidence of how well liked she was.
Tyagi, who like Hetzer earned her doctorate from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Germany, was studying the human genome.
“Her work is relevant for cancer, but also aging and neurodegenerative diseases,” Hetzer said.
Swati Tyagi, 34, was struck and killed Wednesday afternoon; the Salk Institute postdoctoral researcher was the mother of an 11-month-old son
“How do you quantify that loss?” Heiskala, the BikeSD board president, asked. “Not only for her family, but for society. She was doing life-saving research.”
Andy Zhao is studying for a materials science doctorate at UC San Diego, near where Tyagi was struck and killed, and serves as the student representative on the University Community Planning Group.
“It’s just not safe to bike in University City,” Zhao said. “People want to bike, but there are cars going 50 mph right next to you.”
Where Tyagi was riding, there was only a painted bicycle lane, but no barriers, Heiskala said. According to the Urban Bikeway Design Guide from the National Association of City Transportation Officials, a high-volume, high-speed road like North Torrey Pines Road should have a fully protected or separate bike path.
“When you have a car vs. a bike, the car always wins,” Heiskala said.
Advocates from BikeSD and the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition applauded the recent budget passed by the San Diego City Council, saying the city is being more aggressive in implementing long planned and newly proposed bicycle infrastructure projects.
Andy Hanshaw, executive director of the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition, said it’s human stories like those of Hunter and Tyagi that prove the need for more infrastructure and more “attentive, alert” drivers.
“Please always be on the lookout for people on two wheels,” Vance said. “That way we’ll all get along a lot better.”
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