MIT suicides Satto Tonegawa JadeLuckClub Model Minority Tiger Parenting cost of

Inexplicable Suicides at MITand Cal Tech? The Price of Tiger Parenting and Model Minority Pressures?

Asian in America Tiger Parenting
MIT suicides MIT professor son Satto Tonegawa JadeLuckClub Asian American suicidesIt would seem that Freshman Satto Tonegawa had much to celebrate. He was starting at M.I.T. where his father was a professor. And at MIT, the grading system for Freshman is pass/fail to decrease the pressures of adjustment for the new incoming students. But less than two months into the school year, Tonegawa is discovered dead in his dorm room of apparent suicide. His family is in shock. And Tonegawa’s suicide comes on the heels of Sophomore MIT student Nicholas Del Castillo, a native of Bogotá, Colombia, just three days before school started. Two years ago, MIT’s first student from Swaziland, Kabelo Zwane committed suicide during his sophomore year.

Are MIT students at higher risk of committing suicide? It turns out that MIT has the highest suicide rate at 10.2 per 100,000 undergraduate and graduate students from A Boston Globe study of college suicides, 1990-2001. MIT graduate Molly B contests their study:

“My final statistics lesson has to do with something you may have heard — that MIT supposedly has a stratospherically high suicide rate. This is a contention supported by the Boston Globe, a group of stellar journalists, I’m sure, but not so good at the statistics thing. (I can’t find the original Globe article, but the article here makes all the points the original article made.) The Globe basically looked at the MIT suicide rate between 1990 and 1999, compared it to suicide rates at other schools, and decided it was too high. (Let’s just say there’s a reason the Globe article wasn’t published in a scientific journal. Sweeping conclusions backed up by questionable data like that make scientists — including me — want to bang their heads on hard surfaces.)

Now let’s look at some problems with the Globe’s grandiose conclusions:
1. People who successfully commit suicide are significantly more likely to be young and male. In the 1990s, the average MIT student was both those things; since then, the population has famously evened out. (Source here; relevant quote: “In fact, MIT’s suicide rate is below the national average if one adjusts figures for the school’s overwhelmingly male student body [during the years of the study].”)
2. Moreover, science, engineering, and business students have significantly higher suicide rates than do liberal arts students. MIT undergraduates are almost exclusively science, engineering, and/or business majors. Given that both those things are true, one would expect MIT to have a high suicide rate based on those demographics alone. (Source here; relevant quote: “Based on 10 undergraduate suicides over 11 years, the article concludes that suicide is a greater danger at MIT than elsewhere. When one factors in that science and business students have considerably higher suicide rates than liberal arts students, and that male college students kill themselves five times more often than female college students, the figures quoted prove nothing. MIT is cited as currently being composed of 59 percent male students; that fact alone would make the suicide rate differences with most other colleges understandable; but in the early 1990s an even higher percentage of the students at MIT were male.”)
3. The Globe compared MIT to other schools with engineering programs, which is a terrible control. Other schools have engineering programs, yes, but few other schools have 50% of the undergraduate student body majoring in engineering. If you don’t have appropriate controls (and it’s difficult to think of a school which would be a good control — Caltech is science/engineering focused too, but only having one school as the control population would be pretty sketchy.)
4. Statistics like this are terribly vulnerable to small swings in absolute numbers. The absolute number of suicides is very small, and therefore it takes many of them spread over many years to accurately determine whether or not the rate in one place is higher or lower than the rate in another. (Source here; quote: “Because of small number statistics, the “true” suicide rate — i.e., that that would be measured by an very large MIT in the limit of an infinite number of students — is, to 95% confidence, approximately 100,000*(11 +/- 2*sqrt(11)/48,000). At this level, MIT’s suicide rate is consistent with the national average… it would take approximately another thirty three years in order to obtain a measurement of the MIT suicide rate that could be distinguished from the national average at 95% confidence.”)”

And yet, while my analysis is not scientific, I can only wonder about Satto Tonegawa. It’s clear that he was unhappy at MIT but grades were not yet a factor. Perhaps there was undue pressure on him to go to MIT since his father taught there, but maybe this was not where he wanted to go. A highly accomplished musician might be more at home at a music school across the river from MIT.  I’ll never know and perhaps the loved ones that he leaves behind will not ever know why he killed himself.

I don’t know his father, but the negative press generated over “inappropriately discourag[ing] neuroscientist Alla Y. Karpova from taking a job at MIT because their research interests overlapped” leaves the impression of a person who was neither generous in spirit or nurturing.

Finally, one thing is apparent. Asian American young women, in particular, have some of the  highest suicide rates in the country and the reason is linked to Model Minority pressures from their parents. In fact, if you listen to New American Media story here, suicides by youths are quite common in Asia and are the result of not meeting high parental expectations, and the rise Asian American youth suicides stem from similar pressures.

While the MIT suicides hit home since I live in Boston, there are similar numbers at other prestigious colleges that involve an even high percentage of Asian Americans:

There were three Chinese American suicides at Cal Tech in just three months in 2009. “Three Chinese-American students at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have killed themselves in the last three months. Two died by helium asphyxiation and the cause of death of the third student, though deemed a suicide, is yet to be determined. Their stories have been covered in the Chinese language media, but remain virtually unreported in the mainstream.”

“At Cornell University, for instance, 13 of the 21 student suicide victims between 1996 and 2006 were Asians or Asian Americans. That picture is not complete unless you consider that Asians make up of only 14 percent of the total Cornell student body. Cornell is so concerned that in 2002 it formed a special Asian and Asian American Campus Climate Task Force to look into the reason behind the high number of suicides.”

What do you think the root cause of the rise of Asian American youth suicides are? What can be done? Please leave a comment.


“The 18-year-old son of a Nobel Prize-winning MIT professor was found dead this week in his room at the university, the second MIT undergraduate to be discovered dead in a dormitory this school year, authorities said.

Satto Tonegawa, an accomplished pianist and cellist who as a high school student was selected from thousands of young musicians to perform at Carnegie Hall, had entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a freshman this fall after graduating cum laude from Milton Academy.

Tonegawa’s body was found Tuesday, university and law enforcement officials said. They declined to provide details about the circumstances of his death.

“At this time, it does not appear to be suspicious or involve foul play,’’ said Cara O’Brien, a spokeswoman for the Middlesex district attorney’s office.

She said the cause of death is pending an autopsy with the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

In September, Nicolas Del Castillo, a sophomore from Bogota, Colombia, was found dead in his dorm after he hanged himself, just three days before classes began…

The last suicide at MIT before this year was the death of Kabelo Zwane in 2009.” from


“Tonegawa is the second MIT student to have died in less than two months. Nicolas E. Del Castillo, a sophomore, was found dead in his East Campus dormitory room on Sept. 4 in an apparent suicide…

Tonegawa was an avid musician, playing both piano and cello. He attended the Milton Academy before coming to MIT this fall, according to the Academy’s website, and graduated cum laude. Like his father, Tonegawa had an interest in the life sciences — he worked in the Orr-Weaver lab at the Whitehead Institute as a high-school student.

Prof. Tonegawa, recipient of the 1987 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, is a controversial figure. In 2006, Tonegawa resigned as director of MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory after an investigation found he had inappropriately discouraged neuroscientist Alla Y. Karpova from taking a job at MIT because their research interests overlapped.” from The Tech (MIT Online Newspaper)

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12 thoughts on “Inexplicable Suicides at MITand Cal Tech? The Price of Tiger Parenting and Model Minority Pressures?”

  1. This is very sad. Each incident leaves many unanswered issues for the families, as each situation is unique in many ways, yet there is those common threads…Thanks for blogging about this important issue.

    There is some interesting data points in today’s Boston Globe article “MIT reexamines campus efforts after 2 suicides” —

  2. Uh, you don’t hear this happening to MIT admits who are Chinatown kids whose parents worl all day and night and don’t have time to hold their kids hands. Maybe a contributing factor for silver spoon types is that they’ve had smoke blown up their asses their entire life and parental wealth and connections gaming their success UNTIL they get into MIT where everyone else is at least as smart and talented as they are. Think about it.

  3. Cleo: I’ve worked with lower income kids from Chinatown, whose parents don’t speak English and work day and night. A lot of them suffer from depression, too, and it’s certainly exacerbated by the pressure of knowing that you are basically your family’s only chance at the “American dream.” Maybe the reason you don’t hear about them is because they don’t have the same resources as their upper-middle-class counterparts and so end up slipping under the radar. A lot of mental health reporting focuses on wealthier demographics, so unfortunately the link between poverty and depression in the Asian American population really hasn’t been explored.

    1. To Catherine,
      Thank you for bringing up this point. There is a very high rate of suicides for Asian Americans in this young teen, early twenty age demographic. I do think it is because of the pressures of not reaching those goals set forth by parents to ensure “American Dream”. I’ve also read that thesevsame high suicide rates occur in Asian countries and are the result of kids not making entrance exam scores and hence getting into top schools. So it’s the same thing, basically.

  4. Before I sound rude, let me write one thing. I knew Satto personally, and to this day, he remains one of the greatest influences on my life. I would just like to provide you with some information that slightly countermands some of your arguments.

    Satto was an amazing kid. I met him at the Boston University Tanglewood Institute last summer, and his talent for music and his passion for science astounded me. We talked for long hours into the night, debating religion and learning biology and biochemistry (and playing video games). But he knew he wanted to be a scientist – there was no doubt. He only came to the music program because he wanted to please his teacher at NEC. His passion was in the sciences; of that, there is no doubt. He wouldntve been happy in a music school, as you speculated. MIT was the place for him. He knew it; I knew it; everyone on our floor in the Hawthorne dormitory knew it.

    But he also knew where he wanted to go in life. He looked up to his father – he saw him as an inspiration, but also as a goal. But most importantly, he wanted the Nobel Prize.

    The day before our final performance, he told me and a group of others around the table that he would win the prize – or die trying.

    So no. I don’t think it was his “tiger parents” that caused his premature death. Nor do I think that he wasn’t happy at MIT. I don’t know what it is – I don’t want to find out. But I just wanted to let you know that he was an amazing, amazing kid.

    Satto, I’ll miss you man. And even though I dont quite understand why you’re gone today, you’ve inspired me to greater heights.

    1. To Derrick,
      Thank you so much for your comment. It’s such a tragic death and I hope that someone is able to make sense of it, if only, to help prevent more suicides in the future. If music or tiger parenting wasn’t the issue — was he very close to his father? — I also wonder about undiagnosed mental health diseases like depression or others that manifest right around his age.

      I wonder why the Nobel prize was such a huge goal for him? I wouldn’t have expected that to be a factor in his suicide. He had his whole life ahead of him to try to win a prize that is as much political as scientific.

      He sounded like an amazing person and my heart goes out to his family and friends. I hope that someday, there is clarity as to why this happened so that it can help others. I imagine that MIT is taking a hard look at its support networks for undergraduates to make sure that they feel connected and supported during their academic career.

      I am so sorry for your loss. Thank you again for sharing your memories of Satto.

  5. It takes time, let’s be patient and improve the relationship. The foreign wokers in any place on earth might feel the same way.
    One thing we should remember, all nations came from one origin. We evolved differently to survive. Stereotyping and labelling is the enemy of modern society.

    Posted by Joseph

    From my LinkedIn group Korean-American professionals

  6. Hi – I found your post when I was Googling for info on Satto Tonegawa’s death. I worked as an admin assistant at MIT on and off from 1998-2010, so stuff going on in the MIT community is always of interest to me. I heard about Satto’s death when I was out eating ramen and overheard a conversation at the next table. “MIT” “Japan”, and “suicide” caught my attention.

    You & your readers may be interested in Satto’s obituary: I love this quote from his mom. When his parents tried to convince him to drop an instrument, he said no because, “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.”

    Thanks for writing such an interesting post and pointing out Molly B.’s study. I’ve long wondered about MIT’s suicide statistics because I’ve read conflicting things about it. I thought her points about MIT’s high past male population and engineering/science/business majors were interesting. This may also account for the high numbers of Asian suicides at MIT and other universities. MIT’s undergraduate population is 25.75% Asian this year (source: and that’s just US students. [They don’t break down international students by ethnicity so it’s impossible to tell how many them are Asian for sure. (source: There may be Asian students with European or South American citizenship.]

    According to NIMH, Asians have among the lowest rates of suicide in the US, but that’s across all ages. (source:
    For more info about the high suicide rate of Asian-American woman, check out Eliza Noh’s research. Also Google “suicide statistics Asians” for more.

    This is the most comprehensive list of MIT suicides I’ve ever come across, although it hasn’t been updated since early 2007.
    [NB: Elizabeth Shin’s death, although ruled a suicide by the coroner, seems to have been written off as an accident by MIT & her family. The NY Times reported that she bought a week’s worth of groceries before she died, so it’s possible that she didn’t commit suicide.

    I was a little surprised that you took the time to find statistics for your post but then speculated wildly about Prof. Tonegawa possibly not being, “generous in spirit or nurturing”. I see that someone who actually knew Satto already replied to some of your speculation, but I wanted to add a few comments. Since I don’t know the Tonegawas, I have no idea what their family life was like, but I want to point out that a person’s professional and personal behavior aren’t always the same. Prof. Tonegawa may have made some poor choices in handling Dr. Karpova’s case, but people can be obnoxious professionally and still be very loving fathers. It’s also just a tiny snapshot out of a 72 year life. I took everything I read about Dr. Karpova’s case with a grain of salt. What’s been reported to the public sounds bad, but there’s no guarantee that it’s accurate and more likely than not, even if most of it is, it’s probably not the whole picture. Academic hiring & promotions are notoriously contentious, political, and opaque processes, particularly at prestigious institutions.

    I know Derrick already addressed how much Satto wanted to be at MIT, but I want to clear up the misconception that MIT is lacking in arts. It’s true it wouldn’t be the right place for a student who desperately wanted to be at music school, whether it was a conservatory or Berklee (random fact: Berklee was founded by MIT alum, Lawrence Berk), but MIT has a rich arts community that encompasses music, dance, theater, origami, fine arts, digital arts and much more. There are multiple galleries on campus and students can borrow art from the List Visual Arts Center collection for an academic year. You can major (or double major!) or minor in music and there’s an awesome oral history project about the history of music at MIT Something I didn’t know before I started working at MIT is how creative scientists, engineers, and mathematicians can be (many dabble or excel in the creative arts). There’s actually a significant amount of crossover between arts & STEM (science, technology, engineering & math). The Broad Institute knew this – they created an artist-in-residence program when they were still part of MIT.

    One of the things I’ve heard from students, alums, and faculty is that many students find coming to MIT a huge shock – you spend about 18 years of your life being exceptional, and then you come to MIT and suddenly, you’re ordinary by comparison to your peers and the world-renowned professors and research scientists. This may or may not have been the case for Satto, but probably has contributed to the despair some MIT students who attempt/complete suicide feel.

    Suicidal thoughts are caused by such a complex array of factors. They can be made worse by impaired judgement due to alcohol and drug use/abuse (MIT is known to have a thriving drug culture) and chronic pain (which was a speculated factor in a suicide at MIT a few years ago). Usually (but not always) there are warning signs. This doesn’t mean that all suicides are preventable, but it does mean that if you’re paying attention and take people seriously, it *may* be possible to help someone get help. Unfortunately, getting help isn’t always a “cure”. There’s usually no simple answer for why someone commits suicide, and unfortunately, we’ll never know why Satto decided to go.

    The University of Alabama at Birmingham has a great page listing many myths & realities about suicide. also has good information.

    Here’s an article about suicide in 5 Asian countries (Japan, South Korea, China, India, & Sri Lanka).

    1. To A. Keiko,
      Thank you so much for your insightful, well researched, and thoughtful comment. I think I was out of line to speculate that Satto’s parents might be Tiger Mom/Dad. I apologize for that. I am still ranting and raving about the Tiger Mom book in general and I think that I completely overstepped.

      I have another theory. Depression and other mental health diseases tend to occur right around this age. Also, anti-depressant medication is now known to cause suicides. I have no idea if Satto suffered from depression or was on any kind of depression medication so this is just a theory.

      It’s just so sad and upsetting that this young man’s life is over. My deepest condolences to everyone who knew him.

      1. Yeah, Amy Chua’s book is fascinating, especially considering she’s 2nd gen. I get the impression that a lot of people misunderstood the purpose of her book – it was a memoir about a portion of her life, not a how-to manual. And the humor in her book seemed to be missed by a lot of people. My parents didn’t push me as much as some Asian parents push their kids and sometimes I wonder if I would be more successful if they had. On the other hand, I definitely hated a lof of the pushing they did so who knows. I’m not entirely sure Amy is entirely wrong, although I do think there should be a balance between pushing your kids to excel versus telling them everyone’s a winner regardless of how badly they do. I came across this interesting article in The Atlantic last year about her observations that kids with coddled, protected childhoods grow up to be unhappy adults. The author also interviewed Amy later in the year.

        Colleges are very aware of the fact that late adolescence is the time when some mental illnesses show up. It’s also a really stressful time for a lot of kids as they make the transition from being taken care of by their parents 100% to trying to figure out how to be an adult. I found the discussion in the NY Times article I posted above about how the parent-college relationship has changed over the past 50 years really interesting.

        Antidepressants can cause suicidal thoughts in a very small population. Most people were suicidal to begin with and I’ve read in the past that the reason taking antidepressants can make things worse is that often they’re so depressed before they start meds that they don’t have the energy or motivation to put a plan together. There’s a window of danger after someone starts taking antidepressants and starts to feel a little better, but isn’t healthy yet, when they get just enough energy & motivation to come up with a plan and go through with it. It’s tragic, but it wasn’t caused by the meds.

        I’m absolutely heartbroken whenever I read about suicide in the MIT community because they’re always really brilliant people. It’s sad when anyone takes their life, but I tend to think it’s an even bigger waste when it’s someone who could well have found the cure for cancer or answered mathematical puzzles that would open the door for other amazing things.

        1. Correction re: antidepressant & suicide. There is conclusive evidence that SSRI’s,like; prozac, paxil, zoloft, celexa are linked to suicide- and violent behaior due to a side efffect, akathisia- an intolerable agitated/restless state, compounded by impulsive behavior and impaired cognitive function. Suicide and violence appear within first 2 weeks of starting or increasing the dosage of these medications.

          Many of these suicide victims are adolesents and young adults- youngest reported case was 6 year old. Common to all- side effects not explained, signs of irritability, sleeplessness- etc were noted by family or friends, but not thought to be serious…

          Psychiatrists and pharmaceutical companies were aware of these risks before these drugs were marketed…

  7. Start at the beginning. Without adequate daily sleep no-one, but especially teens and young adults, can possess perspective, self-control and happiness. Sleep deprivation is mental, and physical torture.

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