Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
September 27, 2022

Yangkai “Kane” Li, 20, tragically passed away last Wednesday. A native of Guangzhou, China, Li had just declared a major in physics, was a member of the Johns Hopkins Society of Physics Students and was preparing to start research.

Sophomores Jonathan “JB” Brown, Teddy Kupfer and Conor McKenna, who lived with Li last year in AMR III Building A, said he was a kind and thoughtful roommate.

“He was very considerate,” Kupfer said. “I remember when he first came here, he was really excited. When he got here, I think it was a bit of a shock, but I think he was really amazed by how many people were here and how talkative people were. He came out with us during [Orientation], and we would hang out with him in the room and have conversations. He was always — first semester especially — very nice.”

“He was just an ideal roommate,” Brown said. “You know, we’d come back not in the best condition on a Friday night, and he’d make sure we got to our beds. We were all lofted, so he’d make sure we didn’t fall off. The one time I fell off, he popped his head up and asked me if I was okay.”

They spoke of Li’s excitement about spending time playing cards and video games with his suitemates.

“I don’t know if he knew that people would want to play with him,” Kupfer said.

“We all wanted to play with him,” McKenna said.

The three reminisced about their favorite memories of Li, laughing about his decision to wear shower shoes to the Fresh Food Café (FFC) regardless of the weather, his affinity for ordering fruit baskets to the suite and his evolving taste in music.

“He started out listening to metal, and he would listen to it all the time,” McKenna said. “We didn’t really care because it was just kind of funny. But then he progressed, and then he sort of went through a folk and country music phase, and then he ended up listening to Taylor Swift and Katy Perry exclusively by the end of the year. Actually, I looked at all his Facebook posts the other day, and he posted a lot of songs at one point, and you can see his progression. But he used to sing all the time, and honestly, he was the worst singer. He would just sort of kind of sing in a very high-pitched voice. JB had a recording of it and we would just listen to it and laugh because it was funny and it was quirky and it was part of his personality.”

“That was who he was; he was this quirky Chinese guy in our room. He was so fun to hang out with,” Kupfer said.

The three also praised Li’s intelligence and dedication, which extended beyond the realm of physics.

“JB and I watched him sit there over the course of a few weeks and literally teach himself German,” McKenna said. “It was insane.”

Although Li kept to himself much of the time, his suitemates said that they all felt very close to him and agreed that he was beloved by many.

“He definitely had friends, especially a lot of other kids that were from China,” Kupfer said. “We never really met them, but I know he had them. First semester — we’d always say he was part of a secret club — we’d come back at, like, 3 a.m., and he wouldn’t be there. But I used to talk with him about [his friends], and I know he had lots of good friends.”

Brown said that earlier this semester, even though they were no longer living together, Li frequently stopped by his apartment in Bradford to say hello and catch up.

“He was quiet around campus,” Kupfer said. “The room was the place where we saw him the most and kind of the place where he saw other people the most, so it was always nice to check in with him. He went home last year second semester because of depression. He came back [this fall], and it really seemed like he was doing his best to put himself out there and really have the normal collegiate experience. It was so admirable. I remember I saw him out, doing stuff, talking to people.”

“It really seemed like he was doing so much better, and I told him I was really glad to see him,” McKenna said.

Although Li was quiet, he knew how to communicate in many different languages. English was his fourth language; before moving to the U.S., he spoke the Mandarin, Cantonese and Hakka dialects of Chinese.

During his two years as a student at the Woodberry Forest School (WFS), a boarding school for boys in Woodberry Forest, Va., he started learning French.

His advisor, WFS Associate Director of College Counseling Indira Cope, said that Li learned French so quickly that he skipped from French 1 to French 3. Li also took an advanced German course as a freshman at Hopkins without previous formal instruction.

Cope said that Li saved his energy for his passions. He never feigned interest in things he didn’t want to pursue.

“Some kids want to learn a little about everything, and they just flit on the top, but whatever he committed to, he wanted to go deeper,” Cope said. “He was very careful how he chose to spend his time.”

Cope said that Li was a voracious learner who always wanted to delve deeper into his coursework and explore topics outside of his classes. In addition to taking the most advanced courses that WFS offers in math and physics, Li self-studied for Advanced Placement (AP) exams for courses not offered at the school.

“[He] just really wanted to learn everything,” Cope said. “Philosophy, physics, math — whatever he was learning, he always wanted to learn more.”

In addition to his academic pursuits, Li performed in several plays at WFS and took an advanced acting and directing class. In this class, Li and his peers wrote, directed and performed one-act plays.

“Despite being a student whose English was a long way from idiomatic when he arrived here, he put himself in a position where his English would be judged in the most public possible way: delivering lines on stage,” Peter Cashwell, WFS English teacher and drama director, wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “In our production of Den of Thieves, Kane had a massive set of lines to learn — he was the only actor in every scene — and he did so through great effort and dedication because he knew the rest of the cast depended on them.”

Greg Jacobs, the science department chair at WFS, said that although Li’s English was heavily accented, he was able to establish a distinct voice for his characters and tackle a wide variety of roles.

“On the stage, he would take on any role,” Jacobs said. “He enjoyed learning about each role even though it was very foreign to him. He loved taking on things that were foreign to him.”

Jacobs, who was also Li’s physics teacher and debate coach, said that he was impressed by his student’s mastery of physics and his ability to discuss concepts with peers.

“He was every bit as much a part of our physics team and our debate team as anyone else, even though he was working in a second language,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs recounted Li’s participation in an international physics debate competition in California. Li was in charge of presenting and defending his team’s solution. According to Jacobs, Li’s team boasted at least six different national citizenships among the four members.

“Kane fit in beautifully to this international culture on our physics team,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs also said Li was exceptionally fast at picking up new concepts.

“If he didn’t understand something, he would figure it out, and he would figure it out more quickly than most anybody,” Jacobs said.

Li also made an impact on his professors at Hopkins. Although Petar Maksimovic, a professor in the physics and astronomy department, had only spoken with Li a few times, he said that he was very impressed by Li’s understanding of physics.

“He came with one question, and after ten seconds, it was clear to me that he already understands everything,” Maksimovic said.

As a recently declared physics major, Li was seeking advice on future courses and opportunities. In his last email to Maksimovic, Li wrote to follow up about an offer to work with the professor on his particle physics research.

“He did behave like a physics major,” Maksimovic said. “He would have done really well in research with this kind of gung-ho attitude and his capabilities. He impressed upon me as a very eager, driven, [and] smart guy who knows what he wants and is willing to push for it very politely but persistently.”

Cope said that Li placed a high premium on being as polite as possible with all of his peers and teachers. She recalled a time when one of his peers returned his lost iPod.

“He was obviously excited that it had been returned, and he said, ‘Well, I need to write him a thank you note.’ It was natural to him to be very polite and engaging,” Cope said.

Cashwell wrote that Li’s politeness and courtesy for others extended to his work in the theater.

“When another actor slipped in rehearsal, Kane was there to help him or her out,” Cashwell wrote. “By the end of the run, Kane knew the show well enough to cover for anyone else who made an error. Kane always wanted to do as well as he possibly could, but when he was onstage, he tried his best to make sure that everyone else was doing well, too.”

Cashwell wrote that Li was also a role model for the younger international students at WFS.

“Rather than retiring and hiding the difficulties he sometimes had with English, he stepped up and showed our students that they could try anything they wanted,” Cashwell wrote.

Cope also said that Li was a mentor for students who were struggling to adjust to American life.

“We met with some of the Chinese students after we heard about this, and they talked about how he was somebody they looked up to when they were trying to figure out how to make their way through this boarding school experience,” Cope said. “He was somebody who they went to for advice.”

Beyond his accomplishments as a student, debater and actor, the people who knew him both at WFS and Hopkins will remember Li as a genuine friend.

“He had very kind eyes,” Cope said. “People have really good memories of him.”

There will be a service to celebrate Li’s life this Friday at 4 p.m. in the Interfaith Center. A reception with his family will follow the service.

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