If we think of a pure mathematician in the standard lore, we usually would not think of someone who uses mathematics to safeguard data across the broad human spectrum ranging from national security to public health. In the same vein, the word mathematician does not immediately conjure the image of an individual who works with Tampa Bay Street Medicine, an organization dedicated to medical care of the homeless in our community, or someone who uses American Sign Language to teach mathematics to the hearing-impaired. Yet, they can be associated with Keller Blackwell, a University of South Florida (USF) Judy Genshaft Honors College graduate, who has received multiple national scholarships. Ambitious, creative, and empathetic, Keller imbues the spirit that Goldwater Scholarships aim to recognize—excellence in scientific research and in leadership. He was awarded the Goldwater Scholarship in 2019 and was the first mathematics major from USF to receive the honor. The same qualities were subsequently recognized by the Knight-Hennessy Scholars program at Stanford University, where Keller is now pursuing a PhD in computing theory, and by the National Science Foundation (NSF) when he awarded an NSF graduate research fellowship.
Keller was awarded the Goldwater Scholarship for his original research on post-quantum cryptosystems, specifically algorithms which can be used to encrypt data in the quantum computing era. Quantum computers, as opposed to their classical counterparts, work on the counterintuitive rules of quantum mechanics, the paradigm of physics that was invented to theorize about the subatomic world. Due to research in the past decade, it has become increasingly likely that a fully-functioning quantum computer will be actualized in the next few years. Keller’s work is thus timely, visionary, and broadly impacts the unique challenges to encryption that we will face when quantum computers become a reality. In Keller’s own words “I work on cryptography from pure mathematical motivations, but this area also evokes public curiosity, and I would like the fruits of my labor to have some meaning for the real world.”
Keller joined USF as a non-traditional transfer student from Berkeley City College in California in 2017. It was immediately apparent to Dr. Thomas Bieske of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at USF that Keller was a gifted, if unconventionally trained, mathematician. At his encouragement, and after a meeting with Dr. Sayandeb Basu, Director of the Office of National Scholarships, Keller applied to several Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs) for summer research in 2018. The interest in cryptography was birthed during the work with Dr. Gretchen Matthews, then at Clemson University, and subsequently on a consecutive summer fellowship at Williams College with Dr. Steven Miller. Keller applied to Stanford University to work with Dr. Dan Boneh in the computer science department to pursue graduate studies in cryptosystems theory.
When Keller is not busy proving theorems, he attends to those aspects he considers equally meaningful, as they impact others in the community and beyond. In the aftermath of his Goldwater success, Keller was asked to assist with innovative pedagogy in a program called CodebreakHERS at USF. CodebreakHERS is a summer immersion program where high school girls from Tampa Bay and surrounding areas learn the nuances of code-breaking and coding. The problem of underrepresentation of women in STEM, and in computer science specifically, cannot be overstated, and Keller proposes to continue his involvement in this type of work steeped with societal impact in his life going forward. Equally, Keller’s legacy of philanthropy at USF is underscored through his involvement in the Chinese Culture and Language Club (CCLC). As Treasurer and Vice President of this organization, he created the CCLC Scholarship. The scholarship fund supports students who seek to promote cross-cultural dialogue on understanding and addressing socioeconomic inequalities in Asia to travel, educate, and learn abroad in Asian countries. Since joining Stanford, Keller continues to engage with the community, and most recently has been working with the Goldwater Foundation toward launching a diversity initiative.
Research Mentors: Thomas Bieske (USF), Diego Ricciotti (USF), Gretchen Matthews (Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University), and Steven Miller (Williams College)
The Goldwater Scholarship Program, one of the oldest and most prestigious national scholarships in the natural sciences, engineering and mathematics in the United States, seeks to identify and support college sophomores and juniors (by year of graduation) who show exceptional promise of becoming this Nation's next generation of research leaders in these fields. Selected students will receive a stipend for academic and research support for their remaining years as an undergraduate.
Knight-Hennessy Scholars develops a community of future global leaders to address complex challenges through collaboration and innovation. Every year, up to 90 high-achieving students from around the world will receive full funding to pursue any graduate degree at Stanford, including the DMA, JD, MA, MBA, MD, MFA, MS, and PhD programs, as well as joint- and dual-degrees. Knight-Hennessy Scholars is the largest fully endowed scholars’ program in the world.
The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master's and doctoral degrees at accredited United States institutions. Social Sciences such as Anthropology, quantitative sociology, computational social sciences and psychology are also eligible areas of application.