GAUTIER, Miss — A thin, $3 missing metal ring is likely the cause of a Tulane University student's death in a bizarre accident at an Interstate 10 rest stop in Mississippi.

21-year-old Margaret Maurer was killed when two tires came loose from a passing tractor-trailer and struck her. Authorities say Maurer and two friends were about to get back into their vehicle when the tires traveled across the eastbound lanes on I-10 and struck her and two cars.

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The New Orleans Advocate reports that the Mississippi Department of Transportation inspected the 18-wheeler and found that the rig was missing a locking washer which likely caused the tires to break loose.

Maurer was a senior at Tulane University, majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology. She was a Newcomb Scholar who studied abroad in Ecuador, according to university officials.

Tulane University President Mike Fitts described Maurer as an "extraordinarily gifted student and a leader among her peers."

"She was planning to graduate in May to pursue a career in scientific illustration – a field that combined her skill as a scientist, her incredible artistic talent and her love of nature," Fitts said in a statement. 

Fitts said the university hopes to mount an exhibition of Maurer's artwork in Tulane's Lavin-Bernick Center. 

A GoFundMe campaign has been established to honor Maurer's "passions for conservation, plants, language and scholarship." The campaign has raised more than $16,000 as of Friday morning.

[Click here to read more on the New Orleans Advocate's website.]

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.