School of Molecular
and Theoretical Biology

In memory of M. A. Roytberg

On August 16, one day before the conference session of SMTB 2017, Mikhail Abramovich Roytberg passed away during complex surgery to remove a malignant tumor. He had an enormous influence on the design of SMTB and was a friend, mentor and role model for many of our students and faculty. A colleague of my father, Mikhail knew me from birth, became one of my closest friends while working together on a number of schools and research projects.

In 2005 I left graduate school and was spending time in Pushchino collecting my thoughts and looking for something to occupy me. By chance I wandered in on opening day of the Pushchino Winter School (ZPSh). Mikhail, who was the director, quickly arranged for me to teach three courses that season. Demonstrating unconditional trust in providing me a platform for experimentation with my own teaching style he profoundly affected my life, providing me a novel venue for personal fulfilment through teaching.

Mikhail has similarly affected numerous other people, providing encouragement and conditions for achievement in science and education, finding unlimited time and strength to help others. As the director of ZPSh, a frequent participant of the Krasnoyarsk Summer School (KLSh), and other schools and projects, he affected the life trajectory of thousands of students and hundreds of would be teachers. He was the best math teacher from whom I had the pleasure of learning and with whom I had the privilege of teaching. He was always searching for novel ways to teach or implement new techniques, documenting his experience so that it may be useful to others.

His participated in an unbelievable number of projects, including heading a laboratory, serving as a dean of department at a university, heading the committee for the design of the Russian version of the SATs on Computer Science and teaching in several extracurricular schools from high school to graduate school levels. He readily accepted to help organize SMTB, which was developed in the course of our joint work with the Days of Science program of the Dynasty Foundation and his advice and assistance was instrumental in shaping SMTB into its current form. He headed the Math department at SMTB for the first five years of our operation, 2012-2016. He had the insight to suggest the lab rotation system at SMTB designed to aid students in selecting laboratories, without realizing that such a system is commonplace in many graduate schools. A couple of weeks before the first season of SMTB during one of our frequent walks around Pushchino I confided in Mikhail my fear that scientists without experience teaching at high school level may suggest inappropriately difficult projects putting the entire concept at risk. I recall the vigor with which Mikhail pointed out the inherent robustness of a school with an equal number of students and faculty.

The incalculable number of projects in which Mikhail participated in left us in no doubt of his own infallible robustness. He worked at the limit of his capacity, without much thought to his own well being, barely mentioning his condition. He believed in maximizing human happiness, spreading joy at the ZPSh and in other schools. He found cause for laughter even when he spoke of his cancer, maintaining an optimistic and cheerful outlook until the last moments before the surgery that proved fatal, supporting his friends and relatives with his demeanor.

Mikhail will be missed by several generations of scientists and educators. In 2012, in a parody of a slogan from the US, I made a “What would Roytberg do?” poster and displayed it in the headquarters of SMTB. Mostly in jest, but also in a reminder to myself and other young organizers of the expediency of reflecting on Mikhail’s experience and intelligence when looking for a solution to a complex issue. No longer having the opportunity to benefit directly from his advice, many will continue to ask what Mikhail would do, using such reflection as a tool for finding the right solution, or at least to determine our difference of opinion.

Fyodor Kondrashov

Aug. 24, 2017, 8:48 p.m.