MIT Chancellor Eric Grimson called Del Castillo’s death “a tragedy for the MIT community.” A memorial Mass will be held Sunday, Sept. 11, at 5 p.m. in the MIT Chapel.
Del Castillo, a native of Bogotá, Colombia, was born Aug. 13, 1993, and attended the Colegio Calasanz de Bogotá before arriving at the Institute as a freshman in fall 2010. His parents, Henry Del Castillo and Sandra Muñoz, say that in his relatively short life, their son “left footprints” in the lives of many people both at home and abroad.
“He was a good son, a good brother, a good student, a good teacher,” Muñoz says. “Everyone who knew him had a great deal of respect for him.”
Del Castillo had been planning to major in math at MIT, where he excelled in his freshman year courses. His family and friends say he was a kind, self-motivated young man who held himself to high standards and lived his life with an exceptional degree of integrity.
“He didn’t care much about style or external appearances,” says Maria Paula Quiroga, a cousin of Del Castillo’s. “He never did anything for any kind of reward — he just did it because he loved it.”
A multitalented mathematician
For his part, Henry Del Castillo recalls a scene as he was driving his son, then 8 years old, to a karate lesson: “He asked me, ‘Papi, is there a mathematical way to determine all the prime numbers?’ I told him that’s a problem that mathematicians have been working on for years and years. And he said, ‘I’m going to solve it.’”
“He was always a scientist,” Muñoz adds. “When he was a little boy, he was always out on the patio doing experiments with water, soil, bottles, whatever he could get his hands on.”
Del Castillo began competing in math Olympiads in elementary school, quickly rising to the top of whatever level he was placed in. He traveled to Argentina, Mexico and Germany with the Colombian national team. But for all his accolades, teammates, coaches and competitors knew Del Castillo as an extremely humble, giving person.
“He wanted to help others. If someone didn’t understand, he would say, ‘Come here, I’ll explain it to you,’” his father recalls. “He believed that science belonged to everyone.”
For all his intellectual gifts, Del Castillo actively pursued hobbies outside mathematics and the sciences. In addition to karate, he was an artist who enjoyed origami and music. His family says he taught himself to play keyboard simply by reading the sheet music, joining his school’s orchestra without ever taking a single lesson.
“He could have done anything, because he was good at all of it,” Quiroga says.
‘The launching point’
Muñoz says the day her son learned of his acceptance to MIT was an extremely proud moment for the entire community. “Nicolas was the launching point for so many other students at his school — he was like a springboard,” she says. “Other kids saw him do it and they wanted to do it, too.”
What’s more, Del Castillo wanted to help them. Most recently, he spent his summer at home in Bogotá, training aspiring mathematicians to represent Colombia at the International Math Olympiad.
At the Institute, Del Castillo was known as a considerate, hard-working member of the East Campus community. Though he was often reserved, he nevertheless impressed his professors and peers with his intellect and perspicacity.
“He was less outspoken than some students. He was a bit shy, but whenever he spoke people would listen, because they knew he really had something to say,” says Diana Henderson, a professor in MIT’s literature section who taught Del Castillo in her Writing with Shakespeare class last fall.
When Henderson surveyed Del Castillo’s classmates from the course, many remembered an occasion in which he was thrust unexpectedly into the spotlight and impressed them with his talent. While acting out scenes, a student who was supposed to play a crucial role backed out at the last minute; Del Castillo stepped in to take over the part. “He memorized the speech so well and performed it with such passion that they all said he was the best actor in the class,” Henderson recalls.
“Everyone is shocked and very sad to lose him,” Henderson adds. “He will be sorely missed.”
In addition to his parents, Del Castillo is survived by a 13-year-old sister, Cindy Lorena, and other members of his extended family.