Amazing Students Profiles

Derek Ponticelli

Derek Ponticelli

From studying in an empty classroom in the math building to mentoring middle school students to standing on the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, Honors student Derek Ponticelli has taken full advantage of the “incredible” opportunities he’s encountered as a UGA student.


Marietta, Ga.

High School:

Alan C. Pope High School

Degree objective:

M.A. in economics, B.A. in economics, B.S. in mathematics

Expected graduation:

Spring 2013

University highlights, achievements, awards and scholarships:

I’ve been very lucky to have some phenomenal experiences in my time at UGA. The Foundation Fellowship has given me the opportunity to study abroad at Oxford and the London School of Economics as well as the chance to travel to Costa Rica, Tanzania and South Korea with some of my closest friends.

In my freshman year, a close mentor of mine, Phillip Mote, convinced me to volunteer with his new club, Mathcounts Outreach, and I’ve been committed to the organization ever since. Sharing my passion for math with middle school students has been incredibly fulfilling for me personally, and I’m glad that the club has grown so much and now offers that opportunity to so many students at UGA. Furthermore, each spring we’ve hosted our own math tournament at UGA that brings together nearly 150 middle school kids for a day filled with math and fun problem solving, and I couldn’t be more proud of the success those events have had the past two years thanks in large part to Tori Akin’s sleepless nights leading up to the tournaments.

Last year, as a member of the Corsair Society, a business mentoring organization, I connected with the close alumni network that Georgia cultivates and earned an internship at McKinsey & Company in Atlanta. After graduation, I’m excited to return to McKinsey and to continue working as a business analyst.

Family Ties to UGA:

I’m the first member of my family to attend UGA, but I’m very proud that my sister is currently a sophomore here.

I chose to attend UGA because…

… of one of Ted Shifrin’s MATH 3500 lectures. When I was visiting UGA as a senior, a friend let me tag along to one of his classes, and I loved it. The Fellowship had already convinced me that UGA could offer amazing study abroad opportunities along with the chance to study a number of fields, but Ted’s class showed me the type of challenges I could find at Georgia. My head was spinning after seeing Ted’s 4-D graphs all over the board, but I couldn’t wait to come back.

My favorite things to do on campus are…

… run on the trails behind the intramural fields or play Frisbee golf on North Campus. I also love to hang out in the Foundation Fellows library in Moore and the Matrix, the math major lounge. Both places are usually packed with people eager to swap brain teasers or engage in interesting conversations.

When I have free time, I like…

… to go out to eat around Athens with friends, especially to Thai Spoon, to take advantage of the great music scene in town, to solve Project Euler programming problems and to run and play ultimate Frisbee as much as possible.

The craziest thing I’ve done is…

… spend a night in Paris in a Canadian pub. After studying at Oxford one summer, I went to Paris, but I didn’t plan far enough in advance to book a hostel. That behavior wasn’t a problem in any of the other cities I visited, but every hostel in Paris was sold out. I wasn’t too happy about the prospect of spending a night on the streets, but luckily, some kind Canadians directed me to a pub that was showing the finals of the Stanley Cup live. By the time the overtime period and the trophy ceremony had ended, the sun was up, and I was on my way to my next destination.

My favorite place to study is…

… an empty classroom in Boyd. In the evenings I can almost always get a room in the math building to myself, play some music over the class speakers and fill the four new blackboards with equations.

My favorite professor is…

… somewhere in the math or economics departments. I’ve either taken a class from or graded papers for Dr. Shifrin for five semesters, and over all that time, he’s had a tremendous impact on my development. He holds more office hours than anyone else on campus and draws the best graphs I’ve ever seen in the classroom, and he always knew how to challenge me. In the economics department, David Mustard has been a close adviser and mentor of mine since my freshman year, while John Turner and Jonathan Williams have been extremely helpful in guiding my research.

If I could share an afternoon with anyone, I would love to share it with…

… my favorite author, Dave Eggers. I’ve always enjoyed his work, but as a math guy, I also have a lot of self-doubt when it comes to reading any serious literature. I often wonder if I’m missing some allusion or if I’m imposing some symbolism when an author didn’t intend for the water to mean anything at all. I’d love to pick his brain about what he was thinking when he wrote “How We are Hungry” and “You Shall Know Our Velocity.”

If I knew I could not fail, I would…

… focus on a couple things. I want to use “big data” to improve our education system. More testing isn’t going to be a panacea, but developing some way of tracking knowledge will be an important first step. The fun part will be using the databases holding those test results to highlight superior teachers and discover best practices to help those who are struggling. I want to design software that will compile data across students to continuously re-evaluate the curriculum from the individual to national levels. Of course, education would just be the first thing I undertake if I knew I couldn’t fail. I would also play my favorite card game, cribbage, with my dad and Dr. Shifrin over and over again. I’ve had a run of bad luck lately, and the trash talking from those two is just ruthless. So if I knew I couldn’t lose, I would play them and milk it for all it was worth.

If money was not a consideration, I would love to…

… hike and play Frisbee. I would love to see more of the country by hiking through some national parks, especially those in the West. Over the past four years, I’ve been a part of some amazing intramural Frisbee teams. By riding on my teammates’ coattails, I’ve won five championships so far (hopefully we’ll win a couple more this spring), but I’ve never had the time to play at the club level. I’d like to try and play at a “professional’ level. The money not being a consideration has to be a big factor here, because I don’t think pro Frisbee teams pay as well as you might imagine.

After graduation, I plan to…

… work as a business analyst for McKinsey & Company. I hope to work on as many “big data” projects as possible in my time there in order to gain an understanding of how computer science can be applied in a variety of fields. After a few years, McKinsey will allow me to go back to school, and I plan to pursue advanced degrees in statistics and computer science before returning to McKinsey and possibly eventually starting my own data analytics company.

The one UGA experience I will always remember will be…

… standing on top of Mount Kilimanjaro with Addison Wright. We had spent the summer teaching math and English with a couple of nongovernment organizations in Tanzania, and spent the past week or so fighting altitude sickness and freezing temperatures on our way up to the peak. But standing high above the clouds, looking out at the curvature of the Earth, it was impossible not to think about how the Foundation Fellowship, the Honors Program and the university had given us this incredible opportunity and just how lucky I am to be a part of the University of Georgia.