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Student found dead inside MIT dorm room

NICOLAS DEL CASTILLO NICOLAS DEL CASTILLO
By Mary Carmichael
Globe Staff / September 8, 2011

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Nicolas Del Castillo, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology sophomore from Bogota, Colombia, was found dead in his dorm room Sunday, just three days before classes began.

The cause of death has not been determined, but school officials said there was no evidence of foul play.

“This is a tragedy for the MIT community,’’ said Chancellor Eric Grimson in a statement posted on the MIT News website. “Our thoughts are with Nicolas’ family, and we are reaching out to MIT students and others at the institute who will be most affected by this loss.’’

Students said they learned of his death through the campus newspaper, The Tech, which reported that he was found between 6 and 7 p.m. Sunday by his friends and the campus police.

A resident of his dorm told the newspaper evidence suggested Castillo may have died several days earlier.

University officials have not sent out a campuswide e-mail about the death, but MIT spokesman Nate Nickerson said the school encouraged affected students and staff to seek support from its mental health services.

A math major, Castillo had a 4.96 GPA in high school and trained the Colombian team that competed in the international Math Olympiad.

In the MIT international student handbook last year, he wrote that he loved the piano, the video game Dance Dance Revolution, and “learning new things everyday or discovering fun facts.’’ His Facebook page lists light-hearted favorites: Cirque du Soleil, the Lemony Snicket series of children’s books, and “Mary Poppins.’’

If his death were ruled a suicide and not attributed to an accident or natural causes, it would hit a painful nerve in the MIT community. The school suffered a series of suicides in the 1990s and early 2000s, and the parents of one student, Elizabeth Shin, brought a $27 million lawsuit against the school, which was settled in 2006 for an undisclosed sum.

MIT subsequently expanded mental health services, offering walk-in visits with therapists and screening programs for depression and suicide risk.

Counselors see about 15 percent of the student body each year and 35 percent of any given class by graduation. In the 2008-2009 academic year, counselors had 11,000 visits from students, according to MIT’s website.

Donn Marshall, a national authority on suicide prevention and associate dean of students at the University of Puget Sound in Washington, said he conducted a daylong training session for counselors at MIT five years ago.

“They have done a wide range of things to improve their safety net for students,’’ he said. “They take this issue very seriously.’’

But tragic deaths have still occurred at the school. Kabelo Zwane, a sophomore from Swaziland, died as a result of suicide in November 2009, and a Web page maintained by an MIT graduate student lists nine other suicides that have occurred there since Shin’s in 2000.

A Globe investigation in 2001 found that the university had a higher suicide rate than peer institutions - 10.2 per 100,000 students, compared with 7.4 at Harvard.

But MIT staff and students have vigorously disputed those statistics, arguing that the figures do not take into account several factors that say little about whether MIT is a pressure cooker.

For instance, during the period for which data were available, MIT was heavily male and dominated by engineering majors. Those groups are more likely to commit suicide than others. And because so few students commit suicide at any school in a given year, it is hard to judge whether the numbers represent trends or aberrations.

Researchers who study the issue said no college has ever been shown to have a chronic problem. “It’s pretty clear that no college or university is a ‘suicide school,’ ’’ said Gregory Eells, director of psychological services and counseling at Cornell University, which experienced its own series of 11 high-profile student deaths including six suicides last academic year. “We know from the data that there are clusters. There’s a social contagion effect. But we also know there may then be five or six years on those campuses where there are no cases.’’

Mary Carmichael can be reached at mary.carmichael@globe.com.