A 44-year-old Boston College chemistry professor died last week of complications from COVID-19, which he had contracted during the fall semester, becoming one of the few known victims of the pandemic in the Boston-area academic community.
Chia-Kuang “Frank” Tsung, a nanotechnology researcher who ran a laboratory and was teaching classes last fall, fell ill in November, BC spokesman Jack Dunn said.
“Tsung was a gifted scholar and a beloved teacher, adviser, and mentor whose life was taken far too soon,” Dunn said. “We mourn his passing.”
Though BC officials said they believe Tsung was infected off-campus, his death is likely to renew questions about how campuses across the country can contain the virus as students return for the spring semester and infection rates surge.
BC faced sharp criticism after a campus outbreak in September. Local politicians, students, and faculty blasted the school for testing less frequently than other Boston campuses and for its limited contact tracing efforts. In response, the college boosted its testing program, with students being tested at least once every 10 days on average and most being tested weekly, Dunn said.
BC also implemented stricter rules for social gatherings and worked with the state’s contact tracing collaborative to contain the spread of the virus.
Dunn pointed out that BC ended the fall semester with 507 COVID-19 cases, fewer than Northeastern University (642 cases) and the University of Massachusetts Amherst (539 cases), although both of those campuses have more students and staff. As of this week, Boston University has 956 cases and Tufts University 339 cases, according to the most recent data available from their COVID dashboards.
BC faculty are tested less frequently than students, which has been a point of contention with some employees. Some faculty are tested weekly, others less often, Dunn said.
Some employees have said they had to rely on the state’s public testing sites to find out if they are infected.
BC officials believe that Tsung contracted COVID-19 outside of the school, Dunn said.
Tsung stayed home and quarantined after experiencing cold-like symptoms in November. He never returned to campus after that.
“He was later diagnosed with COVID-19 by his primary care provider and hospitalized,” Dunn said.
Tracking deaths from the coronavirus among students and faculty nationwide is difficult. Collin College in Texas said in November that a student and faculty member had died of COVID-19. In September, a student at Appalachian State University died of complications from COVID-19. The University of Texas at Austin said in October that one of its staff members died of COVID-19, which he likely contracted off campus.
There have been no other reported faculty deaths in the Boston area this fall or winter.
Tsung’s death has left many colleagues stunned.
On his lab website, a message reads, “Frank was an excellent teacher, a compassionate adviser, and a kind mentor. ... Frank, thank you for having been a catalyst in our scientific career.”
A native of Taiwan, Tsung joined the BC faculty in 2010. His research focused on technology that could be applied to the energy sector and to delivering cancer-fighting drugs into the body more efficiently.
“He was extremely energetic and extremely passionate about science,” said Ben Williams, a postdoctoral student who worked in Tsung’s lab until last summer. Williams recalled sitting for hours in Tsung’s office talking to him about science.
Tsung had a gift for rallying his researchers when they were worn down running the same experiments over and over again in the lab, Williams said.
Williams, who also had COVID-19 last fall but didn’t develop severe symptoms, said he is shocked that Tsung lost his life to the illness.
“I always believed he would come out of it,” Williams said. “He had such a magnetic personality.”
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated when Chia-Kuang “Frank” Tsung became ill and was last on campus. Tsung experienced cold-like symptoms in early November and quarantined after that. He was diagnosed with COVID on Nov. 10. The story has been updated to reflect the information.