Michele Dufault ’11, a senior in Saybrook College, a passionate physicist, oceanographer and saxophonist, and a dedicated friend, died early Wednesday morning in a tragic accident. She was 22.
Members of the Yale community lit candles in Saybrook College’s Killingworth Courtyard Wednesday night in honor of Dufault — they remembered her genuine kindness and intellectual curiosity, and listened to the Yale Precision Marching Band, in which she played for four years and led the saxophone section her sophomore year, play her favorite songs. Those who knew Dufault said they were constantly inspired by her enthusiasm for science, her tireless pursuit of knowledge and her selfless, open-hearted nature.
“As a leader, she had a big influence on a lot of her fellow students — as well as an influence on faculty, as outstanding students do,” Physics Department Chair Meg Urry said.
From Scituate, Mass., Dufault was majoring in astronomy & physics, writing her senior thesis about dark matter, and planning to pursue a graduate degree in either oceanography or physics after taking a gap year to explore her love of the sea.
The Yale community was left shocked and grieving Wednesday after learning that morning of Dufault’s death in a machine shop accident in Sterling Chemistry Laboratory.
“Yale has lost a shining star,” Yale College Dean and former Saybrook Master Mary Miller said in a statement. “The universe has lost a rising one.”
Dufault loved to challenge herself academically, but her friends said she gained equal happiness from sharing her zeal with others.
“I would say, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about, but it’s really cool,’” Dufault’s suitemate Merlyn Deng ’11, an economics major, said. “The very fact that I was trying to talk to her about how she could do science was enough for her.”
Deng and another suitemate, Alice Song ’11, said Dufault approached every aspect of her life as a scientist. Struggling to wake herself up at 7 a.m. every morning sophomore year, Dufault experimented with an enormous alarm clock, moving it around the room until she figured out that when she left it under her mattress it worked most effectively, awaking her with its vibrations, Deng said.
“That really explains the scientific curiosity that few people at Yale have to the same degree,” Song said. “She applied the scientific method to even daily things — like how to wake herself up in the morning.”
Dufault also led many outreach programs for the Physics Department: she was a member of the Yale Drop Team, which performs experiments at zero gravity, a co-president of the Yale Society of Physics Students, and a volunteer for Girls Science Investigations, a program to share science with middle-school girls.
In particular, Dufault wanted to help other women succeed in physics — an area in which women are typically underrepresented, Urry said. Dufault was the “driving force” behind the Northeast Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics and helped host the conference at Yale for three years, physics professor Bonnie Fleming said in an email to the News.
“There was no other person I know who not only said, ‘I can do anything I want to do,’ but also ‘I want to bring other women with me,’” Deng said.
Daksha Rajagopalan ’12 met Dufault in their PHYS 260 class, where Rajagopalan remembered being impressed by Dufault’s performance and independence. Dufault later approached Rajagopalan for help planning the annual Northeast Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics, which Rajagopalan said was instrumental in revealing her true passion for physics.
“She made me unafraid to try these things,” Rajagopalan, who is now majoring in both physics and environmental studies, said. “She was quite a role model.”
‘VIBRANT AND COMPELLING’
At the vigil, acting Saybrook Master Edward Kamens ’74 GRD ’82 listed a few of the words Dufault’s friends had used to describe her earlier that morning: “driven,” “awesome” and “genuine.” For him, he said, the first word that came to mind was “beautiful.”
Her friends listed a few of her wide-ranging pursuits — ornithology, whales, science fiction TV shows, dubstep, frisbee, the New York Times — and said that for Default, nothing was a “passing interest.” For example, her suitemates later added that Dufault, an avid cyclist, never took a shuttle up Science Hill, but built herself a bicycle to ride instead.
She was a member of the tight-knit YPMB for four years, and played at every Yale men’s hockey game this season. At the vigil, band members stood to express their grief, then said they would play through it as a tribute to their friend. They performed the saxophone section’s theme song, “What is Love” and one of Dufault’s favorite numbers, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Henry Foote ’11, who also attended high school with Dufault, shared a story about Dufault’s unfaltering enjoyment of music. At a stormy football game their freshman year, she asked him to pull apart the rain-soaked sheets of her music so that she could read them, he recalled. Her fingers were too frozen to turn the pages, but she wanted to play the next song.
“To me, this moment really captures her enthusiasm for everything she did,” Foote said. “She loved music, she loved the outdoors, and she cared about everything.”
Miller, who saw Dufault present her senior project at a Saybrook College Mellon Forum earlier this semester, said Dufault’s explanation of the research on dark matter she was doing with physics professor Dan McKinsey exemplified her dynamic spirit.
“While she was speaking, I suspended disbelief and thought I understood the strange behavior of invisible things,” Miller wrote in the statement. “She was vibrant and compelling that evening, as Michele was in all things.”
The wake will be held Friday, April 15, from 4 to 8 p.m. at McNamara-Sparrell Funeral Home in Cohasset, Mass. The funeral will be held Saturday, April 16, at 10 a.m. at St. Mary of the Nativity Church in Scituate Harbor, Mass.