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Jaemin Rhee ’92, a post-doctorate fellow in the lab of MIT professor and recent Harvard recruit Steven Pinker, was found dead in her Cambridge apartment April 7. She was 33.
Though the cause of her death is still under investigation according to the Cambridge police department, those close to her label the death a probable suicide.
An alumna of Harvard College whose interests stretched from chamber music to cognitive science, Rhee returned last month to sing in the chorus of the Lowell House Opera.
“Jaemin was a passionate multi-talented member of the department who devoted as much time and energy to music as to science,” said Ned T. Sahin, a graduate student who worked with Rhee. “She brought energy to what she did, and engaged life. It is shocking and puzzling that she chose to leave.”
Despite a discussion and memorial service organized by Pinker, an article in the school paper and a notice published by the MIT news office, Rhee’s death has passed without much public attention.
Kenneth Campbell, director of the MIT news office, explained the university’s response.
“She was an independent adult person living on her own in Cambridge. A post-doc is not part of the student body, so it is not precisely a student body response,” he said. “It is equally tragic, but not per se a student death.”
Pinker said Rhee’s apparent suicide came as a shock.
“It was something of a mystery,” he said. “She was under pressure, but everyone at Harvard and MIT is under some pressure. She had a full year with funding for complete freedom to pursue her research, so the pressure of the job hunt wasn’t yet on her.”
Sahin said he was also puzzled.
“Just the week before, she successfully presented her recent scientific work at a conference in New York, showing subtleties of the way we process words using sophisticated brain imaging technology,” he said, adding that Rhee’s colleagues intend to finish her research and publish it under her name.
Pinker organized a a small discussion last Tuesday for the department and memorial service open to the public last Friday. Rhee’s mother and sister flew in from Europe to attend the service.
Pinker noted that, in addition to her achievements in the sciences, Rhee was a gifted piano player and active on the MIT music scene. She founded the chamber group Ptolemy in 1998 while she was attending graduate school there.
Gena S. Ciccone ’04, who perfomed in the Lowell House Opera with Rhee, has fond memories of her time with the former resident of Quincy House.
“She was always helpful, always friendly, just a really nice person,” said Ciccone.
Melissa Yeh, senior secretary at the Pinker lab, remembers working with Rhee.
“She was very cultured, very knowledgeable. She was raised in Austria, but she was Korean, so she had a lot of different backgrounds,” she said. “She was eclectic. She had a lot of different interests—music, obviously cognitive science, she read a lot. She was really into European chocolate so she would drop those off for everybody whenever she would find them.”
Pinker, who is Florez professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT, oversaw Rhee’s work.
“She was a fiery person. There were frictions between herself and a lot of other people, but there are many people who loved her and I would number myself as one of them,” he said. “She was a person of many gifts and many passions. Her loss hit many people within the MIT scientific community, and in the music community.”
Rhee is survived by her mother, father, brother and sister.
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