Graduate student Maria Birukova dies in climbing accident

Aspiring immunologist Maria Birukova was an experienced mountaineer, and was studying ways to treat with chronic wounds. She died on Sept. 18.

- By Krista Conger

Maria Birukova received her white coat in 2013 from Neil Gesundheit and Preetha Basaviah as she began her studies at Stanford.
Norbert von der Groeben

Maria Birukova, a fourth-year graduate student in the MD-PhD program at the Stanford School of Medicine, died in a climbing accident near Bear Creek Spire in the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains. She was 26.

The accident occurred on Sept. 18 and was witnessed by her climbing partner, Ian Isaacson. Her body was recovered on Sept. 20 by members of the Inyo County Sheriff’s Office, Inyo Search and Rescue and the California Highway Patrol.

Birukova, an avid mountaineer and climber, earned a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering at Yale University. She came to Stanford in 2013 and was working in the laboratory of immunologist Paul Bollyky, MD, PhD. Earlier this year she was awarded a Bio-X Bowes graduate student fellowship in honor of her groundbreaking interdisciplinary research.

“Maria was one of our superstars,” said professor of medicine PJ Utz, MD, who directs Stanford’s Medical Scientist Training Program in which students work toward both a medical degree and a doctoral degree. “She had a background in engineering and an interest in chemistry, and we were very excited to welcome her into our program. But it was clear from the moment I met her that climbing was a major part of her life. In fact, she struggled to choose whether to attend Stanford or the University of Utah for her graduate training because in Utah the mountains are so close. We in the program are devastated that she won’t now be able to fulfill her other dream of becoming a physician-scientist.”

Maria Birukova

Investigating treatments for chronic wounds

Birukova’s research in the Bollyky lab focused on the role played by a virus called a bacteriophage in the formation of biofilms — viscous communities of bacteria, resistant to antibiotics and immune responses, that can colonize chronic wounds or coat medical equipment. She collaborated with researchers in the laboratory of assistant professor of chemistry Yan Xia, PhD, to design polymers and antibodies to disrupt biofilms with the aim of treating patients with deadly infections.

“The medical school community has suffered a tremendous loss,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine. “Maria’s interdisciplinary approach to the treatment of antibiotic-resistant biofilms brought to bear insights from both chemistry and immunology in an attempt to devise new treatments for patients with few other options. Her work was a wonderful example of Stanford’s focus on translational medicine, and she will be greatly missed, both professionally and personally.”

In addition to finding time to climb, Birukova was a consulting project manager for the Stanford Healthcare Consulting Group, a nonprofit, volunteer-run organization devoted to improving patient care through quality- and performance-improvement projects. Birukova was also a 2015-16 Graduate Voice and Influence Program Fellow through Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research. She was a native Russian speaker and, while at Yale, spent time transcribing taped oral interviews with Russian oil workers into written Russian documents.

“Maria was a very dynamic, interested and interesting person who really engaged with the Stanford community in a number of ways,” said Bollyky, an assistant professor of medicine and of microbiology and immunology. “In addition, she was an outstanding scientist. Her research focused on the intersection between microbiology, structural biology and physical chemistry in biofilms. It was very novel, and she was incredibly energetic and passionate about developing new therapies for patients with chronic wounds. Her loss leaves a hole in her graduate class, as well as in my lab.”

Birukova was born on May 31, 1990, in Moscow, Russia. She attended the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools in Chicago. She is survived by her parents, Konstantin Birukov, MD, PhD, and Anna Birukova, MD, who are both on the faculty of the Pritzker School of Medicine at the University of Chicago.

About Stanford Medicine

Stanford Medicine is an integrated academic health system comprising the Stanford School of Medicine and adult and pediatric health care delivery systems. Together, they harness the full potential of biomedicine through collaborative research, education and clinical care for patients. For more information, please visit

2024 ISSUE 1

Psychiatry’s new frontiers