News

The New Gen Ed Lottery System, Explained

News

Armed Individuals Sighted in Harvard Square Arraigned

News

Harvard Students Form Coalition Supporting Slave Photo Lawsuit's Demands

News

Police Apprehend Armed Man and Woman in Central Square

News

107 Faculty Called for Review of Tenure Procedures in Letter to Dean Gay

Six Months Later, Student's Death Still Mysterious

By Andrew K. Mandel

Six months after the death of their son, Fung "Mike" Lam's parents still await information regarding the mysterious details of the tragedy.

In February, Lam--a first-year graduate student in the chemistry department--was found unconscious on the floor of a laboratory by his friend and classmate Eduardo Martinez. Lam died two days later at Massachusetts General Hospital.

According to Harvard University Police Department (HUPD) spokesperson Peggy A. McNamara, the HUPD--working in conjunction with the state medical examiner--is still seeking the cause of Lam's death, and "the incident is still under investigation."

Frustrated by the dearth of answers Harvard has been able to provide, the Lam family--living in Hong Kong--has commissioned the Providence law firm of Corrente, Brill and Kusinitz to find out what happened to their 26-year-old son.

Lam's fiancee Mickey Louie said the family had been advised that initial biological indications suggested the cause of death was cyanide poisoning but "that was later ruled out." Further medical testing, Louie said, showed sodium azide--a compound Lam used in his experiments--in the deceased's body.

Emory Professor of Organic Chemistry Elias J. Corey, who taught Lam, said he would find it "very strange" if such a compound were confirmed to be found in Lam's system.

Corey said sodium azide is water-soluble, and has to be ingested to enter the bloodstream.

A final coroner's report--yet to be released--would indicate the concentration of any chemicals found in the body.

Staff members from the University's Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) division investigated the site and noted that "there appeared to be no chemicals or other hazards that were in use at the time," said EHS director Hugh Joseph Griffin. The lab's ventilation and hood exhaust systems were functioning properly, he said.

The Cambridge Fire Department performed a follow-up investigation and reached similar conclusions, Griffin said. Meanwhile, those who knew Lam have speculated--but remain unsure--as to the cause of the death.

Professor Corey called the entire incident "baffling," noting that he has heard suggestions of a neurological stroke, but he's "not sure."

"A deep-down medical problem is the only explanation that makes sense to me," he said.

"We'll probably never know," Martinez said. He said he had heard the rumors of a stroke as well, but noted that "a stroke at age 25 is suspicious."

When he found Lam on the floor of the nearly darkened lab, Martinez said he thought his friend had "worked so hard he fell asleep."

Martinez said Lam's classmates suspect suicide.

Lam was known to be "more than stressed out" and had "very low self-esteem," friends said.

But several of the morning's events and details seem to challenge the suicide theory.

"We also looked for signs of residual cyanide in the various flasks in the laboratory," Martinez said.

"Nothing was found."

In addition, Lam had phoned his fiance to remind her of the Chinese New Year. "He wouldn't have had the guts to call if he was going to kill himself [a few hours later]," Louie said.

Lam had attended Corey's lecture that morning. Corey said he examined Lam's notebook later on and found his class notes to be "beautifully done."

"Mike was a planner," Louie said. The evidence does not seem to indicate that he was in the frame of mind to kill himself, she said.

Friends said Lam was "extremely kind and gentle," always asking his classmates how they were doing. Lam was also a religious Christian and a recreational volleyball player.

Lam was born on April 24, 1970 in China and was raised in Hong Kong. He earned both his undergraduate and his master's degrees at the Chinese University in Hong Kong, and enrolled in the PhD chemistry program at the University of Southern California (USC) in 1995.

Surya G.K. Prakash, professor of organic chemistry at USC, told The Crimson in Feburary that Lam "took one of [Prakash's] courses and got the highest grade of anyone."

Seeking a more rigorous program, Lam transferred to Harvard in 1996, Louie said.

"He wasn't ready for school," Louie said, citing Lam's appendicitis operation in Summer 1996 that resulted in major internal bleeding. "But he was afraid of deferring, so he went," she said.

At Harvard, Lam excelled.

"Fung was doing exceedingly well," Corey said in a recent phone interview. "I believe he received all A's in his fall graduate courses."

Lam was at the beginning of his second semester in Cambridge when he died.

Friends and colleagues held a memorial service for Lam in one of the graduate dormitories several days after his death

The Cambridge Fire Department performed a follow-up investigation and reached similar conclusions, Griffin said. Meanwhile, those who knew Lam have speculated--but remain unsure--as to the cause of the death.

Professor Corey called the entire incident "baffling," noting that he has heard suggestions of a neurological stroke, but he's "not sure."

"A deep-down medical problem is the only explanation that makes sense to me," he said.

"We'll probably never know," Martinez said. He said he had heard the rumors of a stroke as well, but noted that "a stroke at age 25 is suspicious."

When he found Lam on the floor of the nearly darkened lab, Martinez said he thought his friend had "worked so hard he fell asleep."

Martinez said Lam's classmates suspect suicide.

Lam was known to be "more than stressed out" and had "very low self-esteem," friends said.

But several of the morning's events and details seem to challenge the suicide theory.

"We also looked for signs of residual cyanide in the various flasks in the laboratory," Martinez said.

"Nothing was found."

In addition, Lam had phoned his fiance to remind her of the Chinese New Year. "He wouldn't have had the guts to call if he was going to kill himself [a few hours later]," Louie said.

Lam had attended Corey's lecture that morning. Corey said he examined Lam's notebook later on and found his class notes to be "beautifully done."

"Mike was a planner," Louie said. The evidence does not seem to indicate that he was in the frame of mind to kill himself, she said.

Friends said Lam was "extremely kind and gentle," always asking his classmates how they were doing. Lam was also a religious Christian and a recreational volleyball player.

Lam was born on April 24, 1970 in China and was raised in Hong Kong. He earned both his undergraduate and his master's degrees at the Chinese University in Hong Kong, and enrolled in the PhD chemistry program at the University of Southern California (USC) in 1995.

Surya G.K. Prakash, professor of organic chemistry at USC, told The Crimson in Feburary that Lam "took one of [Prakash's] courses and got the highest grade of anyone."

Seeking a more rigorous program, Lam transferred to Harvard in 1996, Louie said.

"He wasn't ready for school," Louie said, citing Lam's appendicitis operation in Summer 1996 that resulted in major internal bleeding. "But he was afraid of deferring, so he went," she said.

At Harvard, Lam excelled.

"Fung was doing exceedingly well," Corey said in a recent phone interview. "I believe he received all A's in his fall graduate courses."

Lam was at the beginning of his second semester in Cambridge when he died.

Friends and colleagues held a memorial service for Lam in one of the graduate dormitories several days after his death

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.

Tags