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Remembering Satto Tonegawa

Friends and family say MIT freshman was the consummate scientist, with a sense of humor and kindness to match.
Satto Tonegawa
Satto Tonegawa
Photo courtesy of the Tonegawa family

Satto Tonegawa, an MIT freshman, passed away two weeks ago in his MacGregor House dorm room. He was 18.

Tonegawa, of Chestnut Hill, Mass., was born on Oct. 30, 1992. He attended Milton Academy in Milton, Mass., graduating cum laude before arriving at the Institute as a first-year student this fall.

MIT Chancellor Eric Grimson said of his death, “This is profoundly sad, and the entire MIT community shares a deep sense of loss and grief.”  

A talented scientist and musician, Tonegawa identified strongly with his Japanese-American heritage. His parents, Susumu and Mayumi Tonegawa, say they will remember their son as a person of “profound intelligence, modesty and elegance, with a gentle and infectious smile and generous sense of humor,” who, in his short life, “deeply touched those around him.”

A spirited scientist

Tonegawa’s mother says teachers remarked that Tonegawa was a happy-go-lucky kid who happened to be an academic superstar. The preschooler who dribbled sugar-cookie crumbs alongside a trail of ants to observe their ensuing behavior grew into a young man fascinated by the workings of the universe, from molecular biology to astrophysics.

At Milton Academy, Tonegawa impressed those around him with his intelligence and drive. During his senior year, he fashioned himself an independent study course, using materials from MIT OpenCourseWare to delve into advanced concepts in molecular biology and biochemistry.

Arriving at the Institute, Tonegawa was especially excited about pursuing biology coursework, although those who knew him say he had a flair for most any discipline, including physics. His mother remembers a time, as she was driving her 16-year-old son home from school, when he asked her if she knew Maxwell’s equations — the laws that govern electromagnetism and the speed of light. She said she had learned them as a freshman at MIT but had forgotten the details.

“Satto then recited all the equations, moving me to say, ‘Wow, you memorized all those — impressive!’” Mayumi Tonegawa recalls. “He said, ‘Mom, it isn’t that. Once you understand well what they mean, you don’t have to memorize them.’” That, she says, was when she realized “his brain belonged to a different category altogether.”

Emotion and logic

An accomplished musician in two instruments — piano and cello — Tonegawa resisted pressure to specialize in one or the other as he got older. “We asked him, ‘Why not drop an instrument?’” his mother says. “Satto replied, ‘When I am playing cello, the emotional side of my brain is fully at work. I am very emotional. With piano, I am very cool, and the logical side of my brain is hard at work, no matter how emotional the piece is.’”

After taking first place in piano among thousands of students nationwide at the 2009 American Fine Arts Festival, Tonegawa was invited to play at Carnegie Hall, where he performed a Rachmaninoff piece that “elated the entire audience,” his mother recalls.

During the summer of 2010, prior to his senior year of high school, Tonegawa worked as an intern in the lab of Alexander van Oudenaarden, MIT’s W.M. Keck Career Development Professor of Physics and Biology, where he took part in a study of a genetic circuit that controls neuronal migration. Van Oudenaarden says Tonegawa displayed an aptitude for research beyond his years.

“It was amazing to see how he fit into the lab so smoothly,” van Oudenaarden says. “He was working at a level of an experienced researcher. He was also a very nice guy. Very funny, amazingly talented.”

Van Oudenaarden adds, “I was shocked, and the lab was really shocked — and sad — to hear the news.”

Tonegawa is survived by his father, Susumu Tonegawa, recipient of the 1987 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and Picower Professor of Biology and Neuroscience at MIT; his mother, Mayumi Tonegawa ’92; two older siblings, brother Hidde ’09 and sister Hanna; and extended family. The family is planning a private memorial service to be held at their home.

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