Undergraduate Student Spotlight: Meet Derek Zhu

June 21, 2021

How did you decide to become a math major?

I decided to become a math major early in high school, when I picked up a book about obscure Trigonometric identities and thought it was super cool. Some of the identities were stunningly simple yet seemed impossible, and I would spend hours trying to come up with my own. Math is about discovering new beautiful ideas, like a quantitative form of art, and I soon figured out that other fields in math beyond trig were even more beautiful (and useful).

Favorite math course(s) and why?

I like all of them, but CMSC 27530 (Graph Theory) is by far my most favorite. I signed up for the class because I am fascinated by the simplicity and elegance of these important data structures that shape our world. As someone who knew some graph theory from high school, I'm still learning exponentially more concepts every class and the problems on the psets are super fun to solve. Professor Laszlo Babai is not only a combinatorial genius but also a fantastic teacher, and his style makes a difficult topic such as Graph Theory fun and easy to learn.

Do you have any special story to tell that reflects your experience as a math major? 

I don't have any special stories about classes because they were all online, but the people in the math department are very special. Coming into UChicago as a freshman, I didn't know a lot of things, and when I reached out to upperclassmen they were very willing to help me navigate through math classes and the school itself. They are super nice and a testament to the department's philosophy of a curious and collaborative community.

What are your aspirations? 

I want to work in an applied field that is very quantitative, such as Computational Biology, Quantum Computation, or Algorithmic Game Theory. These fields are CS-heavy by nature, but require a lot of rigorous mathematical thinking and problem solving. Hopefully I can become a Professor or be at the forefront in one of these industries.

What are you excited about doing after graduation? (If you know)

I'm a freshman, so I don't know. I'm excited for what will happen, and perhaps my aspirations will be very different from what they are now.

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