DENG: Bold, soft and humble

I went to bed on April 13, 2011 at 2 a.m. after calling my roommate Michele Dufault ’11 to check up on her. I assumed she was out late because of her determination to complete her senior thesis and start enjoying senior year’s festivities. She didn’t pick up.

Two hours later, I woke up to my cell phone ringing. A calm, restrained voice asked me to come to the Master’s Office. “Did something bad happen?” I asked.

A pause. “Yes.”

Michele had died, alone, in Sterling Chemistry Laboratory in a machine shop accident that night.

The lives of those who knew and lived with her were put on hold. Our campus mourned. Her classmates finished the school year without the company of her warmth, intelligence and humanity. Every morning, our suitemates walked past her silent room. Her seat was empty at Commencement.

I saved all 1,507 Gmail messages and Gchat conversations I had with Michele. I collected digital and physical memories from Michele’s friends and classmates, piecing together what I remembered of our lives together. If a fire had destroyed it all, what is the one lesson I would take with me?

Dare boldly but softly.

Michele did just this, in spite of the challenges she faced as a woman in the physical sciences.

Her short career was filled with bold expeditions: She flew in Zero-G missions with NASA, inspected the cosmos in Hawaiian observatories and explored the ocean at the MIT-Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

In the three years that I lived fewer than 15 feet away from Michele, I was constantly reminded of her determination and work ethic. On any job, she was first to arrive and last to leave. Every day at 7 a.m. — even on weekends — I would be jolted awake by a reverberating, banshee-like sound — her alarm clock. She would burst awake after the mini-sonic boom, dashing off to a flurry of activities.

For three years, I watched her dedication grow. Once, she asked me, “Do you think I can bring my sleeping bag to the lab?” I stared at her.

“Well, there are showers there,” she said, unfazed. “And my experiments are going to take forever!” The glint in her eyes told me she was half joking, half serious. Michele’s curiosity reached from space to Earth’s deep oceans.

But she never forgot her desire to help young women fulfill their own scientific ambitions. Though the nature of Michele’s work often brought her away from people, she always returned from her outposts to mentor and inspire. At Yale, Michele organized the Northeast Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics, volunteered with Girl Science Investigations and was a role model to other aspiring scientists.

In spite of her focus on the expansive universe, Michele showed unparalleled humility and appreciated the small, often overlooked, details — the soft side of her daring. A professor found her kneeling on the sidewalk of Science Hill one day and greeted her. She jumped up, sheepishly explaining that she was ferrying tiny caterpillars across the pavement to protect them from getting crushed underfoot.

She shared her knowledge without a shred of arrogance, making non-physics people and young girls instantly comfortable. Still, Michele was self-conscious in assessing her own abilities. She dismissed all our praise and worked longer and better than any of us.

Inadequacy is a common feeling among women, Meg Urry, Michele’s mentor and the first female chair of the Physics Department, told me. “Women blame themselves for bad grades, and conclude — incorrectly — that they were not well suited to science.”

There are women like Michele everywhere, with the same unbridled sense of wonder, curiosity and love for the sciences. Yet these women bear chips on their shoulders and struggle to crack the “glass beaker” ceiling in fields still lacking in female role models.

The absence of Michele’s leadership as a scientist and mentor leaves a void in our community. All her friends and I have are tokens of Michele’s humanity and lessons to impart to future generations. She’s inspired us to establish a fellowship supporting Yale women in the physical sciences.

“I see every student, in a way, as a potential Michele,” Urry said. Michele’s friends and I wish to continue her legacy by honoring her achievements and forging a path for future Micheles.

Merlyn Deng is 2011 graduate of Saybrook College.

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