Anguish at MIT

By David Abel and Daryl Khan
Globe Correspondents

LIVINGSTON, N.J. - Not long before MIT sophomore Elizabeth Shin set herself ablaze in her dormitory room April 10, classmates say, she had shown signs of distress, sometimes sobbing so loudly she kept other students awake.

The 19-year-old, known as much for her intellectual promise as her musical grace, was prescribed an antidepressant by the school's clinic and had been persuaded to start an outpatient mental therapy program.

But no one from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology called Elizabeth's family in New Jersey.

A month has passed and Cho Hyun and Kisuk Shin are still bristling with anger. The anguish of losing their firstborn has only increased as a result of what the Shins describe as a bureaucratic deafness to their appeal for information from MIT, police, and fire investigators.

"This extreme way," said Kisuk Shin, pausing to swallow, tears welling in her eyes. "It's just not Elizabeth. It's not her. It's not her at all . . ."

"It doesn't seem real to us," her husband said.

The couple want an autopsy report, conclusions from the police investigation, and a more satisfying explanation from MIT health officials about what caused the fire that left third-degree burns covering more than 65 percent of Elizabeth's body.

For MIT, the tragedy puts its officials on the defensive again - it is the university's third suicide this year and the fifth since 1998 - and forces them to confront difficult moral and legal issues involving students' rights of privacy as adults vs. parental rights to know about their children's well-being.

"The difficulty in this case is that [Elizabeth] clearly didn't want her parents involved - that was one of her specific concerns," said Robert Randolph, senior associate dean of students. "The question we have been reviewing is whether we should specifically counter the wishes of individuals."

Until the investigation is complete, the Shins say, they prefer to believe Elizabeth's attempts to kill herself were a cry for help gone terribly wrong, a self-inflicted injury that never received the proper medical attention. And while they spent the day before the fire with Elizabeth and saw nothing amiss, her parents say the signs were posted clearly enough for someone at MIT to have saved their daughter - or at least to have alerted them to intervene.

"Elizabeth could have been saved, and that's what makes us so angry," Kisuk said.

Cho Hyun added: "If parents are kept blind because of no communication between the school and parents, and the school's not doing a full-fledged job by taking care of students, then there's a chance of an instance like this repeating."

Because of confidentiality laws, MIT was not required to notify the Shins about Elizabeth's condition. But, in similar cases, according to Randolph, the school has notified parents. "The decision is made on a case-by-case basis," he said.

The housemaster of Elizabeth's dorm, Nina Davis-Millis, did call the family three weeks before the fire. She told them she had taken Elizabeth to the school's infirmary, the Shins said, but did not tell them it was because of self-inflicted cuts on her upper arm. Further, in the days before the fire, when Elizabeth could be heard screaming suicide threats in her dorm and was again taken to the infirmary, no one called the parents.

The Shins also never learned their daughter had agreed to start therapy. The treatment was set to begin the day after the fire.

"I have to confess that I have lost a huge amount of sleep over this, thinking about what I said and what I did," said Davis-Millis, who was a surrogate mother to Elizabeth as the adult supervisor of Random Hall's 93 students. "But, in the end, I feel I did everything I could."

Davis-Millis, who has worked as a librarian at MIT since 1985 and has been a housemaster for the past five years, knows well the rigors of MIT. Students, many of whom were at the top of their high school classes, have to learn to live with the stiffer competition and higher standards of one of the world's elite technical universities.

But she says she believes the best way for students to learn how to handle the pressure is for them to be treated as adults. If Elizabeth didn't want her parents to know that MIT doctors prescribed her the antidepressant Celexa, that was her choice, Davis-Millis said.

"Of course, there are risks and ethical dilemmas," she said. "But I admire our system. It treats students like the adults that they are."

Cho Hyun Shin disagrees.

"The age when they leave for school is 18 and up, but still they are not fully mature persons," he said. "They're still a child in a sense."

Elizabeth's death followed two other suicides this year: In March, Chris Milliard, a 24-year-old MIT graduate, leapt to his death from Phi Beta Epsilon fraternity house where he was living, and in February, Seth Karon, who had been on a leave of absence from MIT, committed suicide at his home in Plymouth, Minn.

School officials, however, assert that suicide is no more of a problem at MIT than at other campuses. Moreover, they say, the rate has declined significantly since peaks during the 1960s and 1970s. In the past 36 years, they say, there have been approximately 38 suicides, which would put MIT below the national average.

A survey by Katharyn Jeffries, an MIT junior who researched suicides for the campus newspaper, The Tech, found 21.2 suicides for every 100,000 undergraduate student years, a figure used to compare suicide rates among different populations. Her figures include students on leaves of absence. The national average among all people between the ages of 20 and 24, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, is about one-third lower than the undergrad figure, or 13.6 per 100,000.

Despite her many strengths, anyone who knew Elizabeth knew she was in a funk, including her parents. Only a month before the fire, she and her boyfriend of the past several months had broken up.

Kisuk Shin knew Elizabeth was suffering from insomnia. She would call her mother every other night, but the week before the fire, the calls stopped.

Another sign of Elizabeth's inner struggle could have been apparent the year before. During fi nals as a freshman, she overdosed on cold medicine and was taken to McLean Hospital in Belmont. It is not clear whether she had been attempting suicide, Cho-Hyun Shin said. Elizabeth told her parents she had trouble sleeping and accidentally took too many pills.

At the same time, Elizabeth's successes helped mask her inner turmoil, friends say.

She was a salutatorian of West Orange High School who turned down Yale for MIT, a gifted clarinet player who once performed in a duet at New York's Lincoln Center, and a biology major aspiring to become a genetics researcher after a stint in the Peace Corps.

Now, the parents are left with many questions: If suicide was on her mind, why would she arrange to take a summer job at one of MIT's genetic labs? Why would she continue with classes, maintaining high grades? Why would she bother to keep appointments in her date book, weeks in advance of April 10, the night police found her in a bed engulfed in flames?

Adding to her parents' bewilderment, the couple had flown to Boston and spent a lazy Sunday afternoon with Elizabeth the day before the fire. Everything seemed fine. They went shopping for juice and bottled water, helped her hook up her new television and VCR, and had a quiet dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Cambridge.

Later that night, after the Shins returned on a shuttle flight to New Jersey, Elizabeth had a session with her clarinet teacher in which she played beautifully, the teacher said, exhibiting the elegant precision and measured exuberance that had earned her a spot on the All-East Orchestra, a coveted honor for high school musicians across the Northeast.

There also appears to have been avenues for her to seek help.

According to a dorm neighbor, Jim Paris, there was no shortage of people willing to help Elizabeth. "A lot of people were trying to help her," he said. "Help was forthcoming; it just wasn't accepted."

Indeed, MIT has a sophisticated support network - which includes 24-hour student-run telephone hot lines, a cadre of psychiatrists on call, and educational awareness programs. Still, the school is reviewing whether there is anything additional that can be done, said MIT spokesman Ken Campbell.

Although in hindsight he wishes MIT did more to help Elizabeth, he said there is only so much that could have been done. "You can try to save kids," he said, "but you can't save them all."

At their home in this Newark suburb, the Shins' fond memories of Elizabeth are still clouded with bitterness toward MIT.

As Kisuk, 47, cleans up a carry-out Chinese dinner, Cho Hyun, 50, leans back in his chair and talks about his morning commute.

There is a patch of grass, he said, just past a toll plaza along the New Jersey Turnpike. This morning he noticed a colony of Canada geese marching along the grass - two geese in front, their goslings waddling behind. On they marched: two geese, goslings, two geese, goslings. Parents followed by their children. Except for two. Two geese, he said, had no goslings.

"Something must have happened to them," Cho Hyun said. "Some kind of accident . . ."

David Abel can be reached at

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