Margaret Maurer

Image via Tulane website

A freak accident on Interstate 10 along the Mississippi Gulf Coast left a Tulane University senior dead Tuesday after an 18-wheeler lost a pair of wheels that crossed the highway and struck her in the parking lot of a rest area.

School officials identified the student as Margaret Maurer, 21, a senior studying ecology and evolutionary biology.

Maurer, who went by the nickname "Meg," was from Forest Lake, Minnesota, about 30 miles northeast of Minneapolis.

At Tulane, she became a Newcomb Scholar, participating in a leadership program for women students, according to the university. She also was a teaching fellow.

In her spare time, Maurer sold plants and crocheted items made from recycled materials at the Green Wave Community Market, according to its Facebook page.

Dorothy Cheruiyot, a professor of practice in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology who worked closely with Maurer, said Maurer and five friends had stuck around New Orleans for the Mardi Gras parades before heading out in two cars for a vacation at a cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina.

“She was so excited, showing me pictures of the cabin. She was going to go hiking,” Cheruiyot said. “And I said, ‘Make sure you have fun. Don’t just work.' ”

They didn't make it far. Maurer was in one car with two of her friends. They stopped for a break at a rest stop just west of Pascagoula, near Gautier.

Gautier Police Capt. Casey Baxter said the 18-wheeler was driving westbound on I-10 when its rear tire assembly became dislodged. The two wheels, bolted together, bounded across the eastbound lanes and into the rest stop.

Maurer and her two friends were about to get back in their car when the wheel assembly struck her. It had traveled roughly 850 feet before hitting her, Baxter said, then continued to roll another 150 feet before coming to rest.

"It’s just something I would never have fathomed happening. It’s a series of unfortunate events that led to a tragedy of this young lady losing her life," he said.

Baxter said the driver of the big rig, which is owned by Dana Transport Inc. of New Jersey, was not impaired.

The rest area on eastbound I-10 between the Gautier exit and the Pascagoula River Bridge was closed, but traffic was not stopped while authorities investigated.

Maurer's death struck several of her professors hard.

"She had a genuine love for learning that we all don't share," Professor Donata Henry said. "She was definitely a bright star in the department."

Maurer illustration

An illustration by Margaret Maurer (image provided by Tulane Professor Tom Sherry)

Maurer had a “natural passion for plants and how we can use plants to tell stories,” Cheruiyot said. She also "had this real passion for working with underrepresented groups," including Mardi Gras Indians. Maurer was working on developing a garden for a community health center in Central City before her death.

She had a “goofball” sense of humor that belied her intellect, Cheruiyot said.

“If you met her, you wouldn’t really know how bright she was. She didn’t let that stand out. She wanted you to engage in conversation,” Cheruiyot said.

Another professor, Tom Sherry, said he received a text message Wednesday morning about Maurer’s "utterly freaky" death.

Last year, Sherry had learned of Maurer's artistic talents and enlisted her to illustrate a book he’s writing on the co-evolution of tropical bugs and birds. Just last week, he said, Maurer sent him eight completed black-and-white illustrations for the book. She also had planned to exhibit the drawings at Tulane’s student union in April.

“She was able to make the eyes sparkle. She was able to get butterfly wings to look iridescent. Just stunning talent. It was like this raw talent and energy, hungry,” the professor said. “It was just so much fun to see her learn and grow as a person.”

maurer illustration

An illustration by Margaret Maurer (image provided by Tulane Professor Tom Sherry)

According to Tulane officials, Maurer planned to pursue a career in scientific illustration after her expected graduation in May. The university said it is still hoping to mount an exhibition of her work.

It was in Ecuador, while studying abroad, that Maurer discovered "the beautiful and informative power of scientific illustration," said a statement from her university department.

Though she was from Minnesota, Maurer found her academic focus locally. Her senior honors thesis was titled, “Coastal Communities: Impacts of Oil and Gas Canals on Marsh Grass Community Composition in the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe Land Area.”

The university noted that Maurer’s death marked the second stunning fatality involving a current or former Tulane student in the past few days. On Saturday night, Tulane Law School alumnus David Hynes was one of two people killed when a suspected drunken driver plowed into Hynes and several other bicyclists on Esplanade Avenue in the Bayou St. John neighborhood.

“The tragic losses of these two extraordinary members of the Tulane family during what was supposed to be a time of joy and celebration are a reminder to cherish each moment and each individual,” the university’s statement read.

A GoFundMe page has been set up to funnel donations made in Maurer's honor to causes related to "her passions for conservation, plants, language and scholarship," it says. 

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.