Three student deaths hit community

MIT mourned passing of Castillo, Tonegawa, and Kyaw in 2011

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Satto Tonegawa ’15.
Source: Facebook
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Nicolás E. Del Castillo ’14
Source: Facebook
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Phyo N. Kyaw ’10
Source: Facebook

This year, the deaths of Nicholas E. Del Castillo ’14, Satto Tonegawa ’15, and Phyo N. Kyaw ’10 shocked and saddened the MIT community. The deaths of both Castillo and Tonegawa were determined to be suicides, and Kyaw was killed in a traffic accident near campus.

Castillo was found dead on Sunday, Sept. 4 in his 4th West East Campus dormitory room, before classes had started for the fall semester. Castillo, from Bogota, Colombia, was a Course 18 (Mathematics) major.

His parents, Henry Del Castillo and Sandra Muñoz, say that in his relatively short life, their son left footprints in the lives of many people both at home and abroad. “He was a good son, a good brother, a good student, a good teacher,” Muñoz said to the MIT News Office. “Everyone who knew him had a great deal of respect for him.”

Castillo always had a strong interest in mathematics — as an elementary school student, he began participating in math competitions. Later, he competed on Colombia’s national math Olympiad team.

Tonegawa was found dead on Tuesday, Oct. 25 in his MacGregor J-entry dormitory room. His father, Susumu Tonegawa, was recipient of the 1987 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and is the current Picower Professor of Biology and Neuroscience at MIT.

Tonegawa, an avid musician who played the piano and violin, has performed as a pianist at Carnegie Hall. He attended Milton Academy in Milton, Massachusetts, and graduated cum laude before starting his studies at MIT this past fall. Tonegawa had a strong interest in biology and had worked in the Orr-Weaver Lab at the Whitehead Institute as a high school student.

His parents said to MIT News that they will remember their son as a person of “profound intelligence, modesty and elegance, with a gentle and infectious smile and generous sense of humor,” who, in his short life, “deeply touched those around him.”

“Such losses stun us as a community,” said Chancellor Eric Grimson PhD ’80 in a campus-wide email in October in response to the suicides. “They are unexpected, they are hard to understand, and they remind us that our community depends not only on our academic endeavors, but above all on the people within it and the connections between us.”

Grimson encouraged students to reflect on their connections in the community and on their personal well-being. He has since created a team of advisors, including students, to examine MIT’s current support and mental health systems.

Castillo and Tonegawa’s suicides are the most recent since that of Kabelo Zwane ’12, MIT’s first student from Swaziland. Zwane died in Nov. 2009.

Kyaw — who graduated from MIT in 2010 with a bachelor’s in chemical-biological engineering, Course 10B — was killed on Tuesday, Dec. 27 after he was struck by an oil tanker truck while riding his bicycle at the intersection of Vassar St. and Massachusetts Ave. At around 7:40 p.m., the truck was turning from Mass. Ave. onto Vassar St. heading towards Main St. when it hit Kyaw. He was transported to Massachusetts General Hospital where he was pronounced dead.

Kyaw was a member of the Sigma Nu fraternity and involved in Camp Kesem, a summer program for children with a parent who has died of cancer. After graduating, he worked as a research scientist at Cambridge-based Soane Labs.

“Phyo was full of life and a friend to all,” said the description on a “Friends of Phyo” Facebook page set up by his friends after his death. “May we share our happy memories of him to keep his spirit alive.”

Kyaw’s death has raised questions over the safety of the Vassar/Mass. Ave. intersection. Since 2007, Cambridge police have responded to 55 accidents at the intersection, 24 of them involving cars and bikes, the Boston Globe reported last month. In 2011, the intersection ranked No. 2 in Cambridge’s top five dangerous intersections.

An investigation into the accident by State Police and the Middlesex District Attorney’s office is ongoing. The truck driver has so far not been charged.

Students and members of the MIT community affected by the deaths are encouraged to reach out to MIT’s personal support services at