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Alumni Spotlight:

Ben Diamond

PPE Alumni Ben Diamond graduated in 2014 with majors in mathematics and computer science. Immediately after undergrad, he entered a PhD program in pure math at Johns Hopkins. After graduating, Ben discovered cryptography, a niche subfield of computer science which combines computational complexity theory with math. In this field, he’s been able to strike a balance between conceptual intrigue and tangible impact. Ben has previously worked for J.P. Morgan, Coinbase, and is currently a cryptographer at Ulvetanna, a start-up specializing in building hardware to efficiently compute zero-knowledge proofs.

A Conversation with Ben

(1) What led you to minor in PPE at UNC? 

I was very interested in philosophy and economics from the beginning. (In fact, I entered college as a philosophy and economics major; I only discovered math in my junior year. This is a whole separate story.) The excellent PPE faculty, and various mentoring relationships I had with them, greatly sped things along, as far as my involvement in PPE was concerned.


(2) How has what you learned from the PPE Program helped you in your career?

In view of the declining interest in the humanities afflicting our era, I am obliged to gently resist the premise of the question, whereby PPE must be valued instrumentally. The philosophical literature, spirited discussions, relationships I had, etc., gave me a lifelong foundation for humanistic thought, and were just plain enjoyable. With that said, more concretely, I think I can safely say that I had the strongest communication skills out of anyone in my math PhD cohort, and similarly for most subsequent positions I’ve had.


(3) What is your greatest professional accomplishment so far?

One thing I’m most proud of is my PhD thesis, which was published in a good math journal. Beyond this, I have had cryptographic work published in a top venue, which I feel pretty good about.


(4) What professor or course influenced you the most during your time in the PPE Program?

Would have to say Jonathan Anomaly. In particular, I remember the small capstone seminar, which took place at Duke.


(5) What was your favorite PPE extracurricular programming  (e.g., reading groups, weekend seminars, speaker series, etc.)?

The one I remember most is the reading group on Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments at a certain Chinese restaurant, led by a then-PhD student in Philosophy.


(6) What advice do you have for prospective PPE students?

Savor your interactions with the fellow students in the program, and pursue mentorship relationships with professors (say, by consulting them for extra reading material, or bringing thoughts/questions to them).


(7) What advice do you have for recent PPE graduates?

People talk a lot about talent, luck, circumstance, et cetera, as variables in success. I want to propose a different, often-overlooked, factor: obsessiveness. I don’t mean “grit”, or any such cliché; I mean obsessiveness—of the sort that could plausibly be deemed unhealthy. In my experience as a mathematician, this is a key differentiator. Which field / undertaking can you get obsessed with, to the point where you’re driven to keep working in it by compulsion? Pursue that.


(8) Where do you see yourself in five years?

Ultimately I want to find a way to get back to my true passion, pure math. Would probably have to start as a side pursuit, since it’s difficult to re-enter math academia after leaving. But if I can find the time to put together some new results, I could have a chance. Another alternative could be computer science academia.