Yale University Limits Access to Power Equipment After Student Death

PHOTO: Michele Dufault
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Yale University has moved to limit undergraduate students' access to power equipment after the death of senior Michele Dufault in a campus machine shop early Wednesday morning.

"This is a true tragedy," Yale President Richard C. Levin said in a statement. "Last night, Michele's hair got caught in a lathe as she worked on a project in the student machine shop in the Sterling Chemistry Laboratory. Her body was found by other students who had been working in the building. They called the police, who responded immediately."

Dufault of Scituate, Mass., was an astronomy and physics major who was expected to graduate with a bachelor's of science degree this spring. The state medical examiner's office said Dufault died from "accidental asphyxia by neck compression."

Levin said that though the university has programs to train students before they use power equipment, he initiated a "thorough review of the safety policies and practices of laboratories, machine shops, and other facilities with power equipment that is accessed and operated by undergraduates."

"Until the review is completed, Yale College will limit undergraduate access to facilities with power equipment to hours that will be specified by the end of the week; monitors will be present at these times in all such locations," the statement continued.

The Yale chemistry department's website says it has a state-of-the-art machine shop to allow students to construct or modify research instrumentation. Access is strictly limited to those who have completed the shop course. The laboratory was closed Wednesday, with all classes and labs in the building cancelled.

Dufault's uncle, Frederick Dufault, said he spoke with her parents Wednesday and they were heading to the university. He did not have any information on her funeral arrangements.

"She was an exceptional student and a wonderful person, just the best kid in the world. The world is going to be sadder place without her. I'm just still in shock," Frederick Dufault said. "She was gifted in many areas not just science, she was a gifted musician, she was a gifted athlete and did crew. She was just a super talented kid just beyond belief. It's a loss not only for her family but for the world."

Dufault was a member of the "Yale Drop Team," an organization that allows students to perform reduced-gravity experiments with NASA programs.

Yale's Michele Dufault Remembered

Dufault was a summer 2010 student fellow for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Woods Hole, Mass. Dean of academic programs Jim Yoder said she participated in a highly selective program for young scientists.

"She worked closely with WHOI scientists who design and operate robotic vehicles to make remote chemical and other measurements in the ocean. The WHOI community is deeply saddened by the loss of such an intelligent young woman with such high potential," Yoder said.

In February 2009, Dufault participated in a workshop to engage young girls to become interested in science. Dufault told the Yale Daily News: "It's nice for the girls to be able to ask questions and say what they want without being judged by guys. Almost all of the volunteers and scientists involved with this program are women, showing the girls that women can succeed in the sciences. I wish I had that opportunity at their age."

Dufault attended high school at the Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, Mass. The head of school, Robert Henderson Jr., said her successes touched almost every aspect of the school's program.

"Dufault was an extraordinary young woman, one of the most precocious students who her teachers ever encountered," Henderson said. "She was simply brilliant. Her mind, her sense of curiosity, her perceptiveness, her sensitivity, and her enjoyment of what she did were extraordinary. She was a true intellectual."

You can read one of Dufault's scientific papers at Yale.

Last month, Raymond Clark III pled guilty to the murder and sexual assault of Yale University graduate student Annie Le in a research building on the New Haven campus. Clark, 26, strangled the 24-year-old Le just days before her wedding in September of 2009.

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