Like most of the Yale community, I was shocked to awaken this past Wednesday to the news of Michele Dufault’s ’11 death. There are simply no words to describe the magnitude of this tragedy. Her contributions to Yale are numerous, and I came to know and admire her through just one of these. We were classmates this past semester in the advanced machining class offered through the Chemistry Machine Shop. I will always remember her for the enthusiasm and energy she radiated every time she walked into the shop. Whether we were working on an old 1930s tractor engine, grinding engine valves or covering welding basics, she was always patient, ever inquisitive and an all-around awesome person.
I wish I could dedicate this column solely to Michele’s life and achievements, but far be it from me to fill a role others who know her better are surely entitled to. The initial reaction to this tragedy, however, has shown me that I can contribute to moving forward in my own small way. Some have already started to rethink what the role of the student shops on campus and how students should be permitted to use them. But I am concerned this conversation started without an adequate understanding of the role of machine shops on Yale’s campus and the safety procedures in place. Consequently, I would like to share my own experiences in the hopes it might lead to a more informed discussion in the days ahead. My goal is not to defend or indict Yale’s procedures, but merely to make them better known.
The training program for the Sterling Chemistry shop is actually a full-semester course. It is the same course for both undergraduates and graduate students. When I took the course, Dave Johnson, the shop manager, trained students for four hours a week in basic shop safety and machining techniques. Students built working steam engines from blocks of brass, aluminum and steel using lathes and mills. Throughout the process, Dave always stressed safety, and safety goggles were an absolute must. He repeatedly told long-haired individuals they must tie up their hair and warned of the danger of getting one’s hair caught in a lathe. Dave secured the shop door when he left at 4 p.m., and after-hours access was only provided to the graduates of the shop training class. These graduates were told not to work alone after hours.
Many have asked why we have machine shop, given the danger. But for a little-known community of Yale scientists and engineers, building new designs is our theater, our campus publication, our YPU. Imagine a Yale where students did not apply knowledge outside of the classroom. Think of art programs where no one made sculptures or a theater program that did not build sets or put on plays. There is nothing so rewarding as seeing an idea or a lesson translate into a tangible object. The Yale shops provide that experience.
Shops are the lifeblood of many student groups. Michele was a member of the Yale Drop Team, a multidisciplinary team that has run multiple experiments in microgravity aboard NASA airplanes. Most people would never have the opportunity to experience near-weightlessness, but Michele and her team did because of their work in the shop. Other student groups like the Society of Automotive Engineers fabricated a hybrid racecar from scratch with Yale’s facilities. Every student involved in these projects puts dozens of hours a week into them. They are the invaluable, often once-in-a-lifetime experiences for which so many of us came to Yale.
We must find ways to prevent future tragedies, but I hope excitement and innovation are not the casualties of an over-eager investigation. Machining can be very dangerous, but not necessarily more so than any other activity at Yale. Sports, commonplace laboratory procedures, and even Yale Repertory Theatre productions can and have seen disastrous worst-case outcomes on Yale’s campus. Few advocate eliminating them as a valid solution to the danger. Likewise, as we search for ways to prevent shop disasters, we should not settle for easy solutions like the sweeping restrictions on undergraduate usage the administration has currently implemented. These are prudent temporary solutions, but should they become permanent, they will only work against the community in which Michele was such an outstanding member.
John Scrudato is a senior in Morse College.