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MIT Freshman Satto Tonegawa Dies at 18

By Jane Seo, Crimson Staff Writer

An 18-year-old MIT freshman was discovered dead in his dorm room on Tuesday afternoon.

Satto Tonegawa, a son of a Nobel Prize-winning MIT professor and a cum laude graduate from Milton Academy in Milton, Mass., is the second MIT undergraduate to be found dead in a dormitory this school year.

University and law enforcement officials declined to provide details about the circumstances of his death.

The death does not appear to be suspicious or involve foul play, said Cara O’Brien, a spokesperson for the Middlesex district attorney’s office.

O’Brien said the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner will conduct an autopsy to find out the cause of death.

MIT’s student newspaper, The Tech, reported that Tonegawa had not been seen for a week prior to his death. Some students said they had noticed a strange odor near his room.

“This is a very sad situation, and the entire MIT community shares a deep sense of loss and grief,” MIT Chancellor Eric Grimson said in a statement. “Our thoughts go out to the family, friends, classmates, and dormmates of Satto, as well as to the graduate resident tutors, housemasters, and others in the student-life system who knew and worked with Satto.”

Susumu Tonegawa, Satto’s father, received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1987 for work on the genetic mechanism that creates the diversity of antibodies. He could not be reached for comment.

Hidde Tonegawa, Satto’s brother, said in a statement to the Boston Globe that the family is struggling to understand what happened.

“Everyone’s still in shock,” he told The Globe.

Those who knew Tonegawa in high school said he was not only bright and talented, but also kind and sincere.

“If you didn’t know him, you probably thought he was quiet,” said Doriane Ahia ’15, a classmate of Tonegawa’s at Milton. “But he was a really smart, funny, and nice guy. He had a lot of friends who cared about him, and that just shows how great a person he was.”

Ahia said she had a few classes with him in their freshman year.

“It’s surreal that I will never see him again,” Ahia said. “You never expect something like this would happen to someone you know.”

Grant M. Jones ’14, who knew Tonegawa since the third grade, agreed.

“Satto was always super gentle, very kind, and clearly extremely smart.”

Jones said he learned of Tonegawa’s death when he saw several friends’ statuses about the death on Facebook.

“One of the statuses said, ‘RIP Satto,’ and I thought, ‘That couldn’t be right,’” he said.

“He was such a happy-go-lucky, awesome guy. He was very kind and sincere.” Jones added.

An exceptional pianist and a cellist, Tonegawa was selected to perform at Carnegie Hall while in high school. He was the recipient of Milton’s Science Prize, which is awarded to students who have demonstrated “enthusiasm as well as outstanding scientific ability” in physics, chemistry, and biology.

He was one of 24 in a class of 180 students to graduate cum laude from Milton Academy.

Tonegawa is the second student in just two months to die at MIT. In September, sophomore Nicolas Del Castillo died in an apparent suicide, just three days before classes began.

According to a 2000 report in The Tech, MIT’s suicide rate among undergraduates was well above the national average. More recent data were not available.

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention showed that the national average in 2008 was 11.84 suicides per year for every 100,000 people. Comparatively, the MIT undergraduate suicide rate from 1996 to 2000 was 18.1 per year for 100,000 students.

Paul J. Barreira, director of behavioral health and academic counseling for University Health Services, said the rate at Harvard is fewer than 5 per year for 100,000 students.

Barreira added that Harvard has created new freshman workshops to introduce students to a variety of mental health resources available on campus. Harvard also conducts depression screenings in the dining halls every fall.

“Besides giving away free J.P. Licks gift cards, there are three things we aim to achieve,” Barreira said. “To reduce stigma in talking about depression and anxiety, to raise awareness of the symptoms, and to find students who are depressed and have not been treated.”

—Staff writer Jane Seo can be reached at janeseo@college.harvard.edu.

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