Former UBC professor killed in Chile remembered by students, colleagues

A former professor at the University of British Columbia, killed in Chile on Friday, is being remembered by a student and colleague as a wonderful mentor and caring man.

Peter Winterburn was stabbed in front of his wife and daughter in an attempted robbery in the port city of Valparaiso. His other daughter was flying from B.C. to Chile Saturday to join her mother and sister.

The 57-year-old Canadian citizen had left UBC in January to move to Chile, where he continued to work in the geochemistry industry. At UBC, he had taught in the Department of earth, ocean and atmospheric sciences.

Winterburn was still supervising several of his graduate students who were finishing up their theses, including Bianca lulianella Phillips.

I couldn’t have had a better supervisor, a better mentor, a better human being to work with,” Phillips said, her voice cracking with emotion.

Phillips, a geochemistry graduate student, has worked closely with Winterburn over the past two years.

In addition to studying under Winterburn’s supervision, Phillips also did fieldwork with him in northern B.C. and the Northwest Territories as part of an exploration geochemistry initiative out of UBC’s mineral deposit research unit.

‘Nuggets of stories’

She recalled his positive attitude and support in the field.

“You spend all day out in the field doing sampling work and sometimes it’s not the greatest conditions,” Phillips said.

“He was always super positive and would bring emergency chocolate — that’s what he used to refer to it as — to keep everyone’s spirits up.”

She described her professor as extremely caring and unique, with a goofy sense of humour and sharp intelligence.

“We’ve all been sharing nuggets of stories since we found out [about his death] yesterday,” she said.

“He had a way of teaching you without you realizing he was teaching you. I look back on my years with Peter and realize how much I’ve grown as a person and also as a scientist.”

Return to Chile

Winterburn had previously worked in Chile. He returned in February, after roughly a five-year stint in Canada, to work as a chief geochemist for the metal and mining company Vale.

“We were all so happy to have him back here in Chile,” said Brian Townley, an associate professor in the geology department at the University of Chile, in an email.

Townley was working with Winterburn to organize the Committee of the 29th International Applied Geochemistry Symposium, set to be held next year.

He said it’s hard to comprehend the tragedy.

“Great grievance and disbelief, mixed with frustration and impotence surrounding us, [make] criminal acts such as these impossible to understand,” Townley wrote.

Police in Chile are still looking for two suspects accused in Winterburn’s death.

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