Oscar L. Berry ’23-’24 first met Arda Cataltepe ’23 while playing competitive tennis in the New England Circuit at around ten years old.
Berry recalls that Cataltepe was always the “most compassionate, nice kind of person.”
When the two were just around 14 years old, Cataltepe finished a match just before Berry headed off to the tennis court. Instead of leaving, Cataltepe stayed to cheer on his friend during a match that lasted more than two hours.
“I look back on it, and I think it’s really touching as an individual experience — and also really indicative about how he saw his own life and his own interactions with others, how dedicated he was to trying to be there for other people,” Berry said.
Cataltepe died on Nov. 4 of a prolonged illness. A senior in Kirkland House, Cataltepe was a concentrator in Applied Math and Economics, having graduated in 2019 from Weston High School in Weston, Mass. In spring 2022, Cataltepe served as president of Harvard Consulting on Business and the Environment, a campus strategy consulting club.
“He would take almost every opportunity that he could to just have those kinds of small meaningful interactions with people before practices, after practices, carpooling to tournaments,” Berry said. “Whenever I had the privilege to be hanging out with him in any situation, it always felt like I was the only thing that mattered to him in that moment.”
“I think a lot of people felt that way,” he added.
Max Bobby ’22, Cataltepe’s close friend, recalled the sense of humor Cataltepe brought to late-night study sessions for a computer science class the two took together.
“Even when the timeline was running tight and things were pretty tense — you’d have to get something in by the next day — he had a really dry sense of humor, but it always cracked me up and released some of that tension,” Bobby said.
Bobby said Cataltepe was “one of the nicest, most caring people” he encountered at Harvard.
“Arda was almost a constant in all of our lives at the time,” Bobby said. “And he was certainly a constant presence in my life.”
Cataltepe loved the Boston Celtics and enjoyed bantering with his friends about the team, Bobby recalled.
“The first time I met him, he was wearing a Celtics jersey,” James Chen ’23-’24 said.
Chen said Cataltepe was someone who was “very generous with his time and his energy.”
“He’s worked with me a lot on projects that really had no benefit to him,” Chen said. “He had no real responsibility or even duty to help out with it, he would just help out.”
Julia Kendall ’23, who grew up in the same town as Cataltepe and has known him since kindergarten, described him as “inquisitive” and “always very curious.”
Cataltepe had a variety of academic interests throughout his life, including history, applied mathematics, economics, and science. In high school, he won the National History Day competition in Massachusetts, Kendall recalled, for an American history project on the Compromise of 1790.
“He definitely had a great interest in history,” Berry said. “I remember we used to have these conversations about ancient Roman and Greek history.”
In an announcement about Cataltepe’s death to the Harvard student body, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana highlighted Cataltepe’s passion for academics.
“His family told me that he was emailing his teachers even hours before his passing,” he wrote.
In September, Cataltepe began a research internship at the Boston Children’s Hospital Computational Health Informatics Program in the lab of Harvard Medical School assistant professor Maimuna S. Majumder.
“He first got in touch with me in 2020 when he applied to intern with my lab,” Majumder wrote in an email. “We didn’t have a position that was quite right for him at the time, but he made such an impression on me that I kept my eye out for an opportunity that would be mutually synergistic.”
Majumder reached out to Cataltepe earlier this year with a suggestion for his senior thesis topic and ultimately served as his thesis advisor.
Cataltepe joined the lab this fall to work on the EAGER project, which aims to use machine learning techniques to identify state-sponsored disinformation on social media.
“As a junior researcher, Arda was passionate about taking his skills from applied math to solve problems at the societal scale—especially those with geopolitical consequences,” Majumder wrote.
Marie-Laure Charpignon, a member of Majumder's lab, wrote in an emailed statement that she was “impressed by [Cataltepe’s] intellectual curiosity and maturity” from the first time she met him.
“What came across the conversations me and other teammates had with Arda is that he is a mission-driven person,” Charpignon wrote. “Arda once shared with me his thoughts about the purpose of applied mathematics: beyond our academic engagement, he said that we should seek to serve social good, even early in our careers.”
Cataltepe was a leader on the EAGER project due to the connection between its research and his senior thesis, according to Majumder.
“I noticed that he led with kindness, every single day,” Majumder wrote. “His devotion to his thesis and to the EAGER team was evident until his very last breath, and we will all miss him terribly.”
Cataltepe was deeply involved in CBE, serving as its president this past spring. His friends in the club described him as a compassionate and dedicated leader who devoted much of his time to the organization.
For Diana Zhu ’23, Cataltepe was a person to “look up to and learn from.”
“I knew he was sick, but we never really knew the extent of it, just because he was so fully dedicated to the club and just making sure things were running as normal,” Zhu said. “He truly just wanted to contribute to the organization and not make it about him.”
Current CBE president Alexander H. Dang ’24 said Cataltepe was “amazing at everything he did” and yet remained “so humble.”
“He was always just there for you, even when there was nothing for him to get out of it — that’s just how much he cared about everything,” Dang said. “He really poured his heart and soul into this organization.”
Michelle Lu ’24, who was previously a managing director at CBE, said Cataltepe was her mentor and acted as a voice of “steadiness and calmness” for the organization.
“His impact is felt not only in terms of how he changed the organization or what things he did as a president, but also the very tangible effect he had on the people that he worked with,” Lu said.
Kendall described Cataltepe as “supportive and thoughtful” throughout their time together at CBE.
“His last semester, he was battling his illness but also serving as president and handling an intense course load, and he just did that with no complaints,” Kendall said.
“He was just a really extraordinary person,” she added.
—Staff writer Vivi E. Lu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @vivielu_.
—Staff writer Leah J. Teichholtz can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @LeahTeichholtz.