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MIT student found dead

Few details emerge in teen’s death; no foul play suspected

By David Abel
Globe Staff / October 27, 2011

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The 18-year-old son of a Nobel Prize-winning MIT professor was found dead this week in his room at the university, the second MIT undergraduate to be discovered dead in a dormitory this school year, authorities said.

Satto Tonegawa, an accomplished pianist and cellist who as a high school student was selected from thousands of young musicians to perform at Carnegie Hall, had entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a freshman this fall after graduating cum laude from Milton Academy.

Tonegawa’s body was found Tuesday, university and law enforcement officials said. They declined to provide details about the circumstances of his death.

“At this time, it does not appear to be suspicious or involve foul play,’’ said Cara O’Brien, a spokeswoman for the Middlesex district attorney’s office.

She said the cause of death is pending an autopsy with the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

In September, Nicolas Del Castillo, a sophomore from Bogota, Colombia, was found dead in his dorm after he hanged himself, just three days before classes began.

MIT has suffered a spate of suicides over the past two decades, and the parents of one student, Elizabeth Shin, brought a $27 million lawsuit against the school, which was settled in 2006 for an undisclosed sum.

MIT has since expanded mental health services, offering walk-in visits with therapists and screening programs for depression and suicide risk.

The last suicide at MIT before this year was the death of Kabelo Zwane in 2009.

University officials said Tonegawa lived alone in his room at MacGregor House, but they were not sure when he died. The student newspaper, The Tech, reported yesterday that Tonegawa had not been seen for a week, and that an odor was noticed 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.’’

Tonegawa’s father, Susumu Tonegawa, a molecular biologist born in Japan, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1987 for his discovery of the genetic mechanism that produces a diversity of antibodies. He has taught at MIT since 1981.

Susumu Tonegawa could not be reached yesterday, but his other son, Hidde Tonegawa, said the family is struggling to understand what happened.

“It’s very difficult,’’ he said. “Everyone’s still in shock.’’

At Milton Academy, Tonegawa was known as a brilliant student and an uncommonly talented musician. He wrote for the student science magazine called Helix, excelled at math, and was as proficient playing jazz as classical music, on the piano and the cello, school officials said.

He was one of 24 in a class of 180 students to graduate cum laude. He was one of seven students to receive the school’s Science Prize, awarded to students who have demonstrated “enthusiasm as well as outstanding scientific ability’’ in physics, chemistry, and biology. In his junior year, he won an award for “outstanding work’’ in math, astronomy, and physics.

When he was a sophomore, Tonegawa won first prize in a competition organized by the American Fine Arts Festival, a program that recognizes young musicians. Selected from thousands of students who auditioned nationwide, Satto won the honor of performing at the winner’s concert in Carnegie Hall, where he performed Chopin Etude Op. 25.

“We have just learned about the death of Satto Tonegawa, news which makes me, and the Milton Academy community, profoundly sad,’’ said Todd Bland, Milton Academy head of school, in a statement. “Satto was a gentle young man, an excellent student, and an extraordinarily talented musician. Our hearts go out especially to Satto’s family at this most difficult time.’’

Outside MacGregor House yesterday, Annie Dunham, 20, a junior majoring in chemistry, said she was saddened to learn that a second student had died on campus this year.

“It’s so terrible,’’ she said, adding she did not know Tonegawa.

Scott Stephens, 20, a sophomore studying material science and engineering, said the stress of schoolwork can take a toll.

“You can make your life really, really hard,’’ he said.

Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report. David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

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