Yale lab accident kills Scituate woman

Safety investigations follow student’s death

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By Meghan E. Irons
Globe Staff / April 14, 2011

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A promising Yale student from Scituate, hailed for her brilliance and humility, was killed in a horrific accident early yesterday morning when her hair was caught in a lathe as she worked in a machine shop. The accident has prompted federal and university investigations of campus safety practices.

Michele Dufault, a senior majoring in physics and astronomy, was found at Yale’s Sterling Chemistry Laboratory by other students who had also been working in the building. They called police, who responded immediately, Yale president Richard C. Levin said in a statement.

New Haven police said they responded to the call around 2:30 yesterday morning.

Dufault was working on a project using a machine used to shape metal or wood by spinning it at very high speeds, Levin’s statement said. The statement did not say whether Dufault was working alone in the lab or whether she died there or later at a hospital. Yale police and New Haven police are investigating.

Levin and other Yale officials met with her parents yesterday.

“I have met with the family of Michele Dufault to extend our deepest sympathy and to offer all the assistance we can possibly provide at their most difficult time of grief,’’ Levin said in a statement. “Our hearts go out to Michele’s family and friends.’’

The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration launched an investigation after the death into whether safety standards were followed at Yale, said OSHA spokesman Ted Fitzgerald.

“We need to determine what safety standards will apply and whether the employer complied with those standards,’’ he said.

Levin said that student safety is Yale’s primary concern and that students are trained before they use power equipment.

Nevertheless, he said, he ordered a thorough review of Yale’s safety policies and practices in laboratories, machine shops, and other facilities with power equipment used by students.

Until the review is completed, Levin said, the university will limit undergraduate access to facilities with power equipment and will require monitors in the laboratories at all times.

Yesterday, after Dufault’s death, Yale shuttered the Sterling Chemistry Laboratory and canceled all classes and labs.

University officials also encouraged students to reach out to deans, chaplains, and the mental health and counseling services to help them cope.

“This is a true tragedy,’’ Levin said.

Dufault, a graduate of Noble & Greenough private high school in Dedham, was known as an exceptional science student at Yale and a young woman with a brilliant mind.

She had planned on pursuing oceanography after graduation and spent last summer working with scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

She played saxophone in the Yale Band and was widely admired in Yale’s Saybrook College, where she resided, Levin said.

“She was the nicest girl you can meet — and she was brilliant,’’ said her cousin, Jason Dufault of Holliston. “She was taken too soon.’’

He said the two were close and often saw each other during family gatherings.

She was the youngest of two girls, he said.

“Every time I spoke with her, especially as she got ready for Yale, I just left every conversation knowing how smart she was,’’ Dufault said.

Edmund Bertschinger, who heads the physics department at MIT, said he met Michele Dufault last year at the Northeast Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics.

Dufault had served on the organizing committee and had been working diligently to prepare women for research careers in the field.

“She was the heart and soul of the Yale student organization,’’ said Bertschinger, who said MIT students were looking forward to working with her to host another conference there this year.

At Noble & Greenough, Robert P. Henderson Jr., the head of school, called Dufault precocious and simply brilliant. He hailed her sense of curiosity, humility, and drive.

“She was a true intellectual,’’ Henderson said about the 2007 graduate.

“She was also distinctly humble, seemingly unaffected by her prodigious talent and academic attainments.’’

Her death has also stunned Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, where she worked closely with scientists who design and operate robotics vehicles to make scientific measurements in the ocean, said Jim Yoder, dean of academic programs there.

“The WHOI community is deeply saddened by the loss of such an intelligent young woman with such high potential,’’ Yoder said in a statement.

Yale will hold a memorial service later in the semester to honor Dufault.

Globe correspondent Jessica Bartlett contributed to this report. Meghan Irons can be reached