Phyo N. Kyaw ’10, 23, died on Dec. 27 in a traffic accident while riding his bicycle at the intersection of Vassar Street and Massachusetts Avenue. At the time of his death, he was working as a research scientist at Cambridge-based Soane Labs. Kyaw received an SB in chemical-biological engineering, Course 10B, in 2010.
“Clearly you don’t want this to happen to anyone,” said his friend Ye Yao ’11. “But … why did it have to be him?”
Phyo came to MIT in 2006, from Yangon, in the Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar. In his freshman year, Phyo joined the Experimental Study Group and became a brother at the Sigma Nu fraternity. He gradually got involved with other communities, like Camp Kesem — a summer program for children with a parent who has died of cancer — where he served as a counselor.
He was known for his persistence. Despite being born with a congenital health condition that prevented him from doing physical exercises for most of his life, he joined the crew team. He started off struggling with every breath on runs, but by graduation, he had transformed himself into an athlete on the MIT crew team and a regular member of the Z-Center.
“Phyo’s spirit never gives up” said Di Yi ’10. “His smiles and his passion forever linger in our minds.”
Phyo connected friends from all of his disparate social circles. “He was always meeting new people and getting other people to meet new people,” recalled Yao, “I think from Phyo’s perspective it was ‘this person is my friend, that person is my friend, therefore we all are friends!’”
Phyo’s open personality contrasted with his modesty. In his ESG freshman evaluation, he wrote “I’m not a very outgoing person, but I like to meet people.” Friends, however, characterize him as outgoing, very friendly, and something of a joker.
Vidya Eswaran ’12, who was a counselor at Camp Kesem with Phyo, remembers him introducing himself loudly as “Yo-Yo.” Phyo was someone who wasn’t afraid to be silly and had a smile that was infectious, Eswaran said.
The Camp Kesem MIT Coordinator, Christina A. Bognet, wrote on the group website that “at camp, his enthusiasm was unprecedented; he was never too tired to make a camper or counselor laugh and ensure everyone was having as much fun as possible.”
Albert Chang ’10 organized a fundraising effort early this year, partially hosted on a “Friends of Phyo” Facebook page, for funeral arrangements and to return Phyo and his belongings to Myanmar. In a January interview with the Tech, Chang said that within a couple days of beginning the effort, over $15,000 had been raised for the cause.
A memorial service was held on April 7 by Phyo’s friends at MIT, where they shared memories and tried to say goodbye. At the memorial, friends discussed a nonprofit foundation — led by Yao — being established under Phyo’s name to carry out his dreams. The as-yet unnamed foundation would stand separate from MIT to provide financial assistance for both MIT and non-MIT related student projects and educational purposes in Myanmar.
Some of the stories shared at the memorial service still managed to bring laughs. Professor Patricia D. Christie, who taught Phyo in ESG, recalls that Phyo was the only male in the morning section of her class. “I will always remember his journal presentation when he explained to a room full of females what physiologically happens when you are menstruating!” she wrote in his course evaluation.
Perhaps Phyo’s lasting legacy is the way he inspired others to treat life as an adventure. “When things get rough,” said Andrea Schneider, who worked with Phyo in Soane Labs, “I remember him, and it always helps me focus on what’s good in life and what I have to be thankful for.”
Phyo’s favorite quote was from Tolkien: “Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.” This quote motivated Phyo never to give up during his own life, and Phyo inspired those he knew never to give up — even today.