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Death of cyclist, Pitt educator leaves hole in community

| Friday, Oct. 23, 2015, 7:49 p.m.
Andrew Conte | Trib Total Media
Mark Jablonowski, 57, of O'Hara tends to flowers surrounding a ghost bike dedicated at a vigil Saturday in Oakland to the memory of cyclist Susan Hicks, 34, of Morningside. Hicks died riding her bike near the University of Pittsburgh campus Friday evening when she was caught in a collision among several vehicles.
Susan Hicks

The death of a University of Pittsburgh teacher and adviser on her bike in Oakland leaves a hole in the academic programs she helped direct, and in the hearts of those who knew her.

“The universe can be cruel. She was young and full of life,” Paul Schifino of Lawrenceville said Saturday about Susan Hicks, 34, of Morningside, who died near campus the evening before when she was caught in a collision among several vehicles.

“She was a bicyclist, an outdoor enthusiast, very passionate about social issues. She was just engaged,” said Andrew Konitzer, acting director of Pitt's Center for Russian and East European Studies. Hicks joined the center 2 12 years ago and most recently served as assistant director for academic affairs, working directly with more than 100 undergraduate and graduate students and teaching even more through various programs.

“She dedicated so much time and energy to working with students,” said Konitzer, who noted that the center was hearing from many with whom she worked. “In turn, she was well-liked by students. She was very inspiring as an adviser and mentor, somebody who poured herself into her work.”

Her death rattled Pittsburgh's growing yet tight-knit biking community, including about 200 people who joined an evening vigil in Oakland that was organized on Facebook.

“We're a community, and we all want to see our streets become safer, and we want safe space to ride,” said Scott Bricker, 38, of East Liberty, executive director of nonprofit advocacy group Bike Pittsburgh. “We can only win that as a community.”

Hicks was struck by a vehicle that had been hit by another car and pushed into a third vehicle as they waited in traffic at the intersection of Forbes Avenue and Bellefield Street, said Pittsburgh public safety spokeswoman Sonya Toler.

The unnamed male driver who initiated the crash was not injured but experienced an unspecified medical emergency afterward, Toler said. Paramedics took him to UPMC Presbyterian. Police did not release information on his condition.

No charges were filed, Toler said. Hicks died at 5:30 p.m. Friday in UPMC Presbyterian, 30 minutes after the crash. She died of blunt force trauma to her body. The medical examiner's office ruled her death accidental.

Earlier on the day of the crash, city officials announced plans to extend a protected bike lane on Penn Avenue, Downtown. In July, they said they would paint biking lanes on roads in Oakland, but not on the busy stretches of Fifth and Forbes avenues.

John Markowitz, 51, of Baldwin Borough rode to the vigil on his bike. He rides with a group that meets in Oakland every Friday, not far from where the crash occurred.

“The hard part is, the way this actually unfolded, there's absolutely zero she could have done,” Markowitz said. “You're just so vulnerable out here on the road.”

Hicks, a native of Virginia, received her undergraduate and master's degrees from Pitt, and a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from the University of British Columbia, according to her LinkedIn page. She came to Pittsburgh to work at the center after building a diverse resume that included anthropology work in the remote Sakha Republic in far-eastern Russia, where she learned the language, Konitzer said.

She reached out across programs and disciplines, as shown in a program she helped build last fall that studied energy production from Washington County to Russia, looking at the policies and markets in between.

“She would approach everything completely holistically,” Konitzer said.

This year, she added rowing to her outdoor pursuits, joining a Rand Corp. rowing team through a friend who works there, said Schifino, who joined the same way.

“Within a couple of sessions of rowing with our team, she just got it. She was a natural. We couldn't believe she was a first-year rower,” Schifino said, adding that she won a silver medal in her first race.

“She was a total team player,” he said.

David Conti is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5802 or dconti@tribweb.com. Staff writer Andrew Conte contributed.

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