Published: Feb. 24, 2017 By

Derek Driggs

Derek Driggs.

You might call someone like Derek Driggs a big-data whisperer, looking through enormous sets of computational information to find what's corrupt or missing.

Driggs studies applied mathematics and has become the third CU Boulder student ever to receive the Gates Cambridge Scholarship, established in 2000, for doctoral studies at Cambridge University in England. The highly competitive award is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

From Golden, Colorado, Driggs will graduate from CU Boulder in May with concurrent bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He then will begin at Cambridge in October, continuing his studies in applied mathematics.

His type of expertise, which he says can benefit scientists and businesses, can do things such as improve the functionality of movie-streaming sites like Netflix in anticipating a user’s preferences, suggesting content accordingly. It also can clean up misinformation or unrelated information in a brain scan, for example from a patient’s movements during an MRI or a faulty sensor, so a doctor can get a pure look and more accurately determine a prognosis.

One aspect Driggs says he looks forward to at Cambridge is exposure to different approaches in his field, noting how researchers in the U.S. often solve big-data problems differently than researchers in Europe, for instance.

“Following a ‘West Coast’ line of thought, a lot of times when we’re given a data set here, we approach it statistically. We determine how many good data points we need to make a sound prediction,” says Driggs. “Over there, researchers might be more focused on what’s called partial differential equations, looking at how they can unravel a blurred image, for example, getting it back to its original state.”

At CU Boulder, Driggs has worked with researchers Keith Julien on convective fluid systems – modeling the type that occur in the outer core of the earth, or in the stars; and Stephen Becker on data extraction from large sets of information.

The 21-year-old, who enjoys spending time with family and friends, and hiking, won a Goldwater scholarship in 2016 and an NSF “expeditions” award in 2014. In 2013, Driggs received a CU Esteemed Scholars award.  

A longtime tutor and teaching assistant, Driggs is the president of the CU Boulder chapter of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, and he founded a research journal on campus to encourage interdisciplinary work.

The two previous CU Boulder students to win the Gates Cambridge Scholarship were Stephen Kissler (2014) and Alejandro Ramirez (2006).