Police: USF biologist dies in an apparent suicide by cyanide

Fire rescue and hazmat crews work at an Extended Stay America hotel in Temple Terrace after Monday’s evacuation.

Luis Santana | Times

Fire rescue and hazmat crews work at an Extended Stay America hotel in Temple Terrace after Monday’s evacuation.

TEMPLE TERRACE — A University of South Florida molecular biologist died Monday night in an apparent suicide by cyanide at a Temple Terrace hotel, police said.

Chitra Chauhan, 33, of Tampa was pronounced dead at University Community Hospital about 10:30 p.m., Temple Terrace police reported.

The discovery of the toxic substance also prompted evacuation of 75 to 100 guests at the Extended Stay America hotel on Morris Bridge Road, where Chauhan had taken a room.

Chauhan was a post-doctoral researcher in the Global Health department in the College of Public Health.

She has a 3-year-old child with her husband, Bharath Balu, who is also a researcher in the department.

A note was found at the scene. Police did not disclose the contents. According to a medical examiner's report, Chauhan had made prior attempts.

Police got two 911 calls Monday night. One came from Chauhan's husband, who said she called home to tell him she had taken cyanide, the report stated. Another call came after Chauhan stumbled out of her hotel room and told a couple in the hall.

Paramedics rushed her to a hospital, but it was too late.

When ingested or inhaled, cyanide quickly deprives cells of oxygen, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"It's not a safe substance, so it's not an easy thing to come by," said Cynthia Lewis-Younger, director of the Florida Poison Information Center in Tampa.

Chauhan's husband told police that his wife would have access to cyanide at work, according to the medical examiner's report.

No one else was harmed by the cyanide, police said. On Tuesday, a biotech company did an environmental cleanup at the hotel, and it reopened.

USF officials released a statement saying they were saddened to learn of Chauhan's death. The university plans to notify the community of public memorial services.

She earned her doctorate from the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology in New Delhi, India, in 2005, then studied mosquitoes and disease transmission at the University of Notre Dame.

"Chitra was just a wonderful person," said David W. Severson, her former lab leader at Notre Dame. "She was very bright. She was very enthusiastic. Everyone liked her very much."

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3433.

Police: USF biologist dies in an apparent suicide by cyanide 11/16/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 16, 2010 11:09pm]

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