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Beryl Lieff Benderly

What to Remember on the First Anniversary of Michele Dufault’s Death

A year to the day after Yale undergraduate Michele Dufault died while working alone, late at night, on her senior project in a university machine shop, the university’s student newspaper, Yale Daily News, carries two remembrances of the 22-year-old physics major who was just weeks away from graduation. She strangled to death after her hair became entangled in a lathe that, according to later investigation, lacked required safety features.

In an affecting essay Dufault’s roommate, Merlyn Deng, recalls that terrible night and her friend’s intellectual boldness, appealing humility, determined efforts on behalf of women in science, and impressive work ethic. A news story describes efforts by Dufault’s friends and the physics department to fund a memorial foundation intended to support educational opportunities for female science students.

What neither article mentions, however, is exactly what Yale has done in the past year to better protect those working in its labs and other scientific facilities. A photo shows a smiling Dufault with her long hair that, in combination with faulty equipment and the lack of a workshop companion, doomed her. The caption states that in addition to establishing the foundation, “Yale has tightened workshop safety regulations.” But it doesn’t say how, and it doesn’t say what else the university has done or not done on the safety front. And it doesn’t mention that, because Dufault was a student rather than an employee, occupational safety laws did not cover her case and therefore government sanctions are not possible. In the case of the death of University of California lab technician Sheri Sangji, by contrast, felony charges have been brought against the university.

Both Yale Daily News articles, furthermore, describe the fatal event as an “accident,” a word that safety experts have advised me not to use in cases like this. It implies that something happened unpredictably, almost at random. That’s hardly an accurate description when many easily avoidable factors
combine to cause a death–rather analogous to not using a seatbelt while riding in a car.

It is, of course, good and worthy to remember Dufault’s many fine personal qualities, the brilliant promise that was needlessly lost, and to endeavor to continue her admirable efforts to advance the cause of women in science. But sorrow is not enough. Also necessary is a determination by powerful institutions like Yale–and universities everywhere–that such events are utterly unacceptable and that every effort will be made to see they don’t happen again. That must also be part of a fitting memorial to Michele.