A year after Michele Dufault ’11 died in a machine shop accident on campus, those who knew her are working to establish a foundation to promote women in the sciences.
Dufault’s friends, family and professors have raised a third of their target $100,000 to create an endowment for their foundation, the Michele Dufault Summer Research Fellowship and Conference Fund. The endowment will fund an annual summer fellowship for young women at Yale in the physical sciences and support conferences like the Northeast Conference on Undergraduate Women in Physics, which is regularly hosted at Yale. The foundation’s organizers said it will help young female scientists overcome hurdles in fields dominated by men — similar to the challenges Dufault faced as a physics and astronomy double major — and that their work has been a constant reminder of Dufault’s academic prowess and enthusiasm.
“Once we stopped being totally shocked and unbelieving and all of those things, it seemed like a way of honoring Michele’s passions,” said Physics Department Chair Meg Urry, who worked with Dufault. “Besides being excited about the sciences, she was the number one cheerleader and supporter of all the women around her.”
The foundation’s organizers said they aim to complete fundraising by the end of 2012, and that the first summer fellowship will be awarded in summer 2013.
In addition to endowing a summer research fellowship, the fund will also support conferences that bring together undergraduate women in the sciences. Urry said Dufault was active in organizing the NCUWP at Yale, adding that she thinks the University has a higher percentage of female physics majors than most other universities — 30 to 40 percent, compared with a national average of 20 percent — because of its work with the conference and other similar efforts.
Alice Song ’11 said the foundation will help sustain a “network of support” that Dufault occasionally struggled to find for her own studies, which she said will allow young women to approach science more confidently. Though Dufault found a mentor in Urry, Dufault’s friends said she was frequently unsure of her capabilities.
“I think she never realized just how intelligent and awesome she was,” Song said. “She was always kind of filled with doubt about her abilities, and it was something that we never really understood because we could see how bright she was.”
After Dufault’s death, Urry said she learned Dufault had once hesitated to approach her for a letter of recommendation — even after working in Urry’s lab for a summer. Throughout her interactions with other students, Urry said she is constantly reminded of Dufault’s lack of confidence, adding that she now strives to be more “blatant” and “direct” in her support of her students.
Sarah Mich ’12, who is involved in organizing the foundation, said Dufault has left a legacy of “determination, intelligence and spirit.”
“At the end of the day, what we take from Michele is a sense of excitement in the world and a sense of empowerment,” Mich said. “Building something in the spirit of someone is a very exciting and important endeavor but, of course, you’d always love to have them there building it themselves.”