Faculty and friends of a graduate student in the University of Utah’s Department of Physics and Astronomy who died last year have stepped forward to share more details about Mengying — referred to here by a pseudonym — and her time at the U, following an independent investigation into the matter. The Daily Utah Chronicle is choosing to refer to Mengying with a pseudonym in accordance with the World Health Organization’s ethical guidelines for reporting on suicide.
According to police documents, in October 2017, when friends of Mengying reported her missing and possibly considering suicide, all members of the U’s police department and surrounding agencies were notified to be on the lookout for her. Mengying’s remains were recovered just a few days later and her death was ruled a suicide.
An international student from China, Mengying studied biophysics in the Physics and Astronomy Department and began her pursuit of a Ph.D. in 2008.
People close to her called Mengying “brilliant” and “a competent, talented scientist.”
Mengying was listed as an author on at least six academically published research articles. She won an award at a student research symposium in 2011, and one of her studies was covered by various news outlets in 2014.
In her spare time, she liked to shop, and she loved fashion.
“In sciences, you don’t see women dressing up fashionably,” said Faith Zheng, a long-time friend who requested to be referred to by a pseudonym for fear of retaliation. “We don’t present ourselves that way. She was on point. Hair? On point. Dress? On point. Shoes? On point.”
Mengying told friends she didn’t believe being a scientist should prevent her from expressing herself as a woman, even though some people judged her for it.
The pair liked to cook for one another and drink wine together. They planned to share a $100 bottle and travel the U.S. and China after graduating, to celebrate. Zheng says she loved Mengying and viewed her as an older sister.
Another long-time friend described her as the “kindest, most understanding person I know” and called her “a very strong person.” This friend requested to remain anonymous for reasons related to the wishes of Mengying’s family.
Mengying was still enrolled at the U when she died. Her death and the subsequent independent investigation have sparked conversations about the mental health of graduate students and how the university could better support students.
Problems at the U
Zheng said she first noticed something was wrong when she realized how much time she felt Mengying spent in the lab, often working through the night, on weekends and sometimes on holidays. Stephan LeBohec, a professor in the department, said work hours are often strange for researchers and graduate students. However, even within that context, the independent investigation found, “The student’s lab conditions at times went beyond the expected workload and experience of a rigorous Ph.D. program.”
No logs are kept of the hours graduate students work, so this could not be verified. However, U spokesperson Christopher Nelson said, “The university believes the outside investigators found enough evidence to reach the conclusions that are found in the report and has no reason to second guess those conclusions.”
The second issue took place in the early part of the fall 2015 semester when the U began considering whether to grant tenure to Mengying’s research advisor, who declined multiple requests for comment. After significant consideration, The Daily Utah Chronicle has chosen not to name him due to current concerns with departmental identities and safety.
In the process, the tenure candidate, department faculty and staff and a group of students, called the Graduate Student Advisory Committee (GSAC), are given an opportunity to present information and recommendations as to whether they think tenure should be granted. Multiple sources in the department who wish to remain anonymous allege the GSAC didn’t want Mengying’s advisor to receive tenure because they felt he could not maintain a good environment in his lab. Documents obtained by The Daily Utah Chronicle confirm this.
The final report from the U’s independent investigation does not mention the GSAC or its recommendation against the advisor’s tenure, but it does mention the environment in his lab where Mengying worked, calling it a “generally tense lab environment” and describing intense disputes between lab members.
According to Zheng and Mengying’s other close friend who wished to remain anonymous, Mengying told them her advisor solicited a positive letter from Mengying and another student in his lab, in order to counter the GSAC’s negative report. The investigation’s report confirmed that Mengying and another student were asked to write such a letter by a faculty member, but the identity of that faculty member is not disclosed.
Around that same time, Mengying’s student visa needed to be renewed. In December 2015, the report said, she lost visa status as a result of “a lapsed submission deadline.” Zheng and LeBohec recalled Mengying telling them in August 2016 she had newly discovered the lapse. Zheng and Mengying’s other friend, who wished to remain anonymous out of respect for Mengying’s family, said she told them it had happened because her advisor hadn’t submitted some paperwork in time. However, emails obtained by The Daily Utah Chronicle show an advisor from International Student and Scholar Services blaming the lapse on Mengying herself, saying she hadn’t submitted her paperwork properly.
International Student and Scholar Services Director Chalimar Swain said that generally speaking, “It is possible that a student could have their status lapse due to an academic advisor not submitting the correct documentation in a timely manner. If that were to happen, there are processes a student can follow to regain their status.”
Nelson said, “As a general rule, foreign nationals must have work authorization from the U.S. government in order to legally work in the U.S.”
It wasn’t until December 2016 that Mengying’s immigration problems were resolved, according to the report. Her visa had been expired for an entire year. Despite this, the report said there was a “hiatus of at least six months in the research” during this time period — appearing to support the allegation that Mengying didn’t know about the lapse until August, several months after it occurred.
“The university strives to ensure that it does not employ foreign nationals who do not have current work authorization,” Nelson said. “In cases where a reinstatement is pending, care is taken to make sure students and their faculty advisors are aware of restrictions on work, including what can and can’t be done. All international students have [a document] that clearly lists a date of expiration so that students, and their faculty advisors, should be aware of the expiration date of their status.”
Zheng said Mengying was not allowed to work in the lab after August while her immigration status was being fixed. LeBohec and Zheng advised her to use the time to work on her dissertation.
During this period, Mengying had another problem — she had not yet taken her qualifying exam, in which she would be tested on general biophysics knowledge and discuss her research interest for the rest of her time at the U. Department policy says this exam should be taken by the end of a student’s third year. Similar policies are in place at other PAC-12 schools.
In 2013, Mengying hadn’t taken the qualifying exam but told Zheng she had plans to do it soon. In 2014, she said the same. In 2015, Mengying admitted to multiple people she was concerned it would not happen that year. She eventually scheduled her qualifying exam for the early part of the fall 2016 semester, but Zheng said, “A surprise came with it.”
The independent investigation’s final report said, “Shortly before the qualifying exam, a unilateral substitution was made to the composition of the student’s advisory committee, contrary to university policy.”
Each student’s committee — sometimes called either an advisory committee or a supervisory committee — consists of five professors chosen by the student. Until early 2017, each committee’s responsibilities were limited to participation in their student’s qualifying exam and in the defense of their dissertation, after which a student would graduate. Students pass qualifying exams only by consent of the advisory committee and, similarly, only graduate if the committee agrees they are ready to do so.
LeBohec, Zheng and Mengying’s other close friend said Mengying told them her advisor single-handedly changed her advisory committees along with that of another student in his lab, removing Jordan Gerton — the assistant chair of the department — and replacing him with the advisor’s wife, who is also a physics professor. The investigation’s report showed the change occurred, but the allegation that Mingyeng’s advisor is the person who did so could not be verified outside the accounts of these faculty members and friends.
Gerton declined requests for comment, saying he did so “out of respect for [Mengying’s] family,” and the professor who took Gerton’s place also declined multiple requests for comment.
The other graduate student whose committee was changed did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In text messages to Zheng, Mengying said she met with Gerton after the change. She told Zheng that he said he didn’t know he had been removed from the committees until he received a departmental email advertising the second student’s dissertation defense, which did not list him among the committee members. The Daily Utah Chronicle has confirmed that this email is as described. Later in those text messages, Mengying said, “I’m not comfortable with the change” and wrote that Gerton “thinks even the student doesn’t have the power to remove a committee member without talking to anybody first.”
According to July 2016 emails obtained by The Daily Utah Chronicle, Mengying met with LeBohec for an outside opinion on the change, saying, “I’m confused about the situation in my committee and don’t know what’s the best way to deal with it.”
After they met, he summarized their meeting in an email to her, to make sure they were both on the same page. LeBohec wrote, “Your research adviser single-handedly changed the composition of your advising committee replacing one member by his wife. You are worried that this new committee member may not evaluate your performance in a way that would not be biased by the opinion of your adviser.”
He called her concerns “legitimate” and wrote, “I believe the person responsible for the constitution of your advising committee is yourself, no one else. Your adviser may suggest or ask that you make a change for another person. In principle, the choice is yours. I am surprised it was even possible for your adviser to make these changes without your approval, but since it happened you are facing a choice.”
He said she could either refuse the change or accept it. LeBohec felt it would probably be easiest for Mengying to accept the change to her committee, but told her, “Your adviser should respect your decision. I do not know [him] well enough to tell you if there is a serious risk your refusal of his change could result in a degradation of your relationship with him. You have to rely on your intuition for that.”
Mengying replied to LeBohec’s email summary of their meeting, thanking him for his help.
In that email, LeBohec also suggested the reason Mengying’s advisor may have removed Gerton from the committee could have been because the two did not get along.
The investigation report does not specify names, but describes severe interpersonal issues among professors in the department, saying that many faculty members “refuse to speak with each other” and are “factionalized,” sometimes requiring the administration to intervene in order to facilitate necessary communication.
Mengying accepted the change to her committee and passed the qualifying exam on August 25, 2016 — four years after the time when students generally take it.
After her visa was reinstated in December 2016, the report said, Mengying only ever went to the lab twice again — both times in January 2017. According to that report, beginning even before her immigration status was fixed, “The student was nominally affiliated with the university, but the student’s day-to-day whereabouts and activities were largely unknown. Minimal efforts were made by the department to understand the student’s situation.”
The situation remained stagnant for over a year. Documents inspected by The Daily Utah Chronicle show that Mengying’s advisor sent emails and texts attempting to establish contact with her, all of which went unanswered.
Zheng said she thought Mengying was more withdrawn than usual during that year, but it seemed like she was working a lot at home, so Zheng assumed she was writing her thesis. Mengying had told LeBohec shortly after her qualifying exam that she was working on her thesis, and she told Zheng that she had a goal to defend it and graduate in August 2017. By all accounts, it wasn’t until after Mengying disappeared that those close to her learned she hadn’t written anything.
The final report from the U’s independent investigation said that by the time she died, “the student was in the eighth year of study and had no definitive plans to defend a thesis, inconsistent with department policy which provides that students shall generally complete the Ph.D. program in seven years.”
After articles about Mengying’s disappearance and death surfaced in Chinese media, members of the public spammed department members and university officials with identical emails, demanding answers about her experience at the U. Mengying’s advisor, along with members of his family and other people working in his lab, received hate mail. Documents show the advisor also received death threats, which he reported to campus police.
Graduate Students and Mental Health
Research has found mental health issues to be common among graduate students. One study released this month in Nature Biotechnology on graduate students in 26 countries found that 39 percent of the students surveyed had moderate to severe depression, which is more than six times the rate found in the general population.
A paper published in the Psychiatric Clinics of North America also found that “the cause of a complex outcome such as suicidal behavior actually consists of a constellation of components that act together, which vary from one individual to another.”
The World Health Organization says, “Suicide is never the result of a single factor or event. The factors that lead an individual to suicide are usually multiple and complex.”
Risk factors identified in research include mental health issues, family problems, stressful life events, emotional or physical pain, problems with romantic relationships or friends and issues at school.
One study concluded, “In particular, university administrators should note that academic problems were rated as having a large effect on suicidal ideation by 43 percent of undergraduates and 45 percent of graduate students who seriously considered attempting suicide.” It continued, “This suggests that the systems that become involved with academically distressed students may have an opportunity to interact with these students in a way that is sensitive to and may decrease their likelihood of developing suicidal thinking.”
Mengying’s friend who wished to remain anonymous felt she had been depressed for years. Zheng had no idea, saying, “It didn’t occur to me that she was depressed, and I don’t think it occurred to her that she was depressed. She knew that she was upset. She knew that she was sad. She [felt] that she was helpless and hopeless, but I don’t think she recognized it as life-threatening. She planned the entire suicide. I don’t know if she knew that was a sign of depression, that she needed help. I don’t think […] she realized that she could be saved.”
Zheng said others in the department had been diagnosed with depression, and Mengying said that she didn’t believe in it. She explained it wasn’t in her culture to view being in a negative emotional state as a valid reason to stop functioning. Zheng said she tried to explain the science behind depression, but Mengying didn’t seem to accept it. Research into sociocultural beliefs in China with regard to mental illness has concluded that “mental illness is severely stigmatized in mainland China and other Chinese communities,” at least partially related to a cultural emphasis on “avoidance of extreme emotional reaction.”
Zheng said she did not feel the faculty in the Physics and Astronomy Department was taking mental health seriously, saying depression and stress are so common they’re simply accepted.
A month after Mengying died, James Sutherland — an engineering professor and member of the Academic Senate — addressed her death and issues surrounding the mental health of students at an Academic Senate meeting. The minutes from that meeting said he “wants to draw attention to the intense pressure that many students, particularly graduate students, face,” in light of Mengying’s death, and the death of another student by suicide a few years ago. The minutes said, “He believes we can do better to serve our students.”
In an interview, Sutherland declined to discuss either death specifically but said he thinks it’s generally very difficult for students at the U to get help when struggling with mental health, particularly when their issues aren’t severe. He said, if a student is having a mental health crisis and approaches the Counseling Center in the midst of an emergency, “an immediate response can occur,” but felt that early intervention — caring for the mental health of students when issues begin in order to prevent more serious issues from developing — is lacking due to wait times at the Counseling Center.
Lauren Weitzman, the director of the Counseling Center, said this is a misconception, but she isn’t surprised to hear it. She said a student’s first appointment at the center, called an intake appointment, can be scheduled by calling anytime during office hours. The average wait time when scheduling the first appointment this way is about six days, although this fluctuates throughout the semester. However, if a student calls for an appointment right at 8:00 a.m., they can schedule an appointment called a same-day intake and be seen that day. Weitzman said three to five of these appointment are available daily.
Weitzman declined to discuss Mengying’s case specifically, saying, “One of the things that’s super important about coming to the Counseling Center is confidentiality. We are not able to share information, or even confirm or deny whether someone has been here unless for some reason we had that student’s explicit permission.”
However, she said the Counseling Center tries to reach out with education to all kinds of students, including graduate students, international students and students with cultural barriers.
While Weitzman said the Counseling Center has employees who are very active in outreach to the university community and is doing the best it can to manage the needs of its students, it does have resource issues. Associated Students of the University of Utah is in the midst of attempting to put in place a new student fee which would provide additional funding to the Counseling Center.
Multiple professors expressed in interviews that graduate students in general struggle with mental health.
Eugene Mishchenko, a professor in the Physics and Astronomy Department, said they frequently feel isolated and experience “intrinsic loneliness.” This feeling can be compounded when a graduate student experiences problems with their advisor or other major issues with their education.
Mishchenko called the power imbalance between a student and their advisor as “probably the most you can imagine, more than anything else in American life,” and characterized it as “utter dependence” because a student’s degree essentially depends on that relationship. He said, because of this, students are sometimes hesitant to report issues that may occur.
“You have that one student, a young person, alone in a one-to-one [relationship] with an individual that they see as being infinitely powerful,” LeBohec said. “They just don’t want to mess with that person.”
The final report from the investigation into Mengying’s experience at the U said when talking about the student-advisor relationship in general, “The power (and potential for abuse of power) of an advisor, who oversees progression, controls research and recommendations, and certifies visa-related documentation, is … magnified for international students.”
Zheng said, “In all of this, the advisor holds the highest autonomy [over] a graduate student’s academic process and her immigration status,” and feels this “should have been changed a long time ago.”
She also said “The system of how our department works is clearly not in favor of the student at all,” because she feels it favors productivity and output over the student’s progress as a whole person. “Most ignore the student’s level of stress,” Zheng said, “I am not surprised [Mengying felt she had] nowhere to go.”
She continued, “I don’t think she couldn’t take it […] I don’t think she was incapable of graduate school. I think graduate school has failed her.”
If you or someone you know is at risk of self-harm or suicide, seek help as soon as possible by contacting agencies specializing in crisis intervention and suicide prevention. Services are available to University of Utah students during business hours through the Counseling Center at 801-581-6826. Utah residents can call the UNI CrisisLine 24/7 at 801-587-3000, and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).