UC engineering student demystifies crypto through co-op

Digital currency holds tremendous promise, computer science student says

When Jake Hemmerle isn’t writing software in coffee-fueled bursts with amped-up tunes playing in the background, he likes to go parachuting off tall structures as a BASE jumper.

Now the University of Cincinnati computer science student is preparing to tackle the high-wire world of digital currency.

“Cryptocurrency is like digital cash. You don’t need to trust some centralized company to conduct the payment. Transactions are irreversible, and corrupt governments can’t freeze the currency,” he said. “It’s still going to take many years to gain broad and institutional adoption. I think it will become the backbone of financial infrastructure. Everyone will use it.”

Jake Hemmerle poses in a skydiving helmet.

UC computer science student Jake Hemmerle enjoys the extreme sport of BASE jumping. Photo/Provided

Hemmerle pursued his passion through UC’s top-ranked co-op program, which combines classroom instruction with real work experience in their chosen field.

When he’s not studying computer science in UC’s College of Engineering and Applied Science, Hemmerle works as an intern at the nonprofit Web3 Foundation through one of several co-ops he is completing at UC. Part of his job involves writing software, documentation and tutorials. But through the Web3 Foundation, he has been learning more about Polkadot, a decentralized network with its own cryptocurrency.

“I did an internship in San Francisco my sophomore year doing software consulting in JavaScript,” Hemmerle said. “They gave me an excellent foundation in software engineering, but they did almost no crypto. But when I was there, I was doing meetups and things, checking out the tech in the area. I was interested in embedded systems and privacy enhancing technology.”

Hemmerle’s roommate at the time was working with one of the more popular cryptocurrencies called Ethereum.

“He introduced me to the tech behind cryptocurrency. I saw the networks, the privacy, the math and was instantly hooked,” Hemmerle said.

Rows of computers in a darkened room.

UC launched a new bachelor's program in cybersecurity this year. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Creative + Brand

UC: birthplace of co-op

UC’s former Dean Herman Schneider pioneered the nation’s first cooperative education program in 1906. Students dedicate part of the year to full-time academic instruction and part of the year to full-time employment with any of more than 2,000 business partners around the world.

UC’s co-op model has been replicated around the world, but UC maintains its standing as a national leader (fourth in co-op in the latest rankings by U.S. News & World Report.) And a bronze bust of Schneider greets engineering students in front of Baldwin Hall on campus.

Hemmerle said his co-ops at UC made all the difference in setting up his budding career.

“It wasn’t until I started doing my co-ops and I met other students who weren’t doing them that I had the perspective to appreciate the program,” Hemmerle said. “They said, ‘Damn, I wish my school had a program like that.’ They were like, ‘Wow, you have a year and a half of experience by the time you graduate and you can try a bunch of different jobs.’ It really sets you apart from other students and gives you confidence in all aspects of your career.”

Falling in love with learning is super important.

Jake Hemmerle, UC College of Engineering and Applied Science student

A Pew Research Center survey this year found that a majority of Americans know at least a little about cryptocurrency even though few invest. In 2015 fewer than half of Americans had heard about cryptocurrency. 

Cryptocurrency is in the midst of a ground-shifting change in the way it functions, Hemmerle said.

In the absence of a government entity like the U.S. Treasury that decides when to issue new currency, Bitcoin allows investors to create new currency by “mining it” using special software to solve complex math problems. Investors also add new transaction records to the system’s digital accounting ledger, known as a blockchain.

This accounting system ensures that Bitcoin investors can’t spend the same Bitcoin twice, enhancing security.

But this “proof-of-work” system requires a lot of computing power. Cryptocurrency such as Ethereum are moving to a proof-of-stake system that will be more energy efficient and will do away with crypto mining.

“Crypto in its current form is really hard on the environment. Bitcoin and Ethereum both run on proof-of-work systems that are computationally expensive,” Hemmerle said.

Jake Hemmerle poses with friends outside in a forest.

UC computer science student Jake Hemmerle poses with friends before a backcountry hike. When he is not at a computer, Hemmerle said he likes to travel and engage in extreme sports such as BASE jumping. Photo/Provided

Exploring new technology

Hemmerle said he has been learning as much as he can about cryptocurrency policy, its underlying technology and the implications for the global economy. As someone with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Hemmerle said it can be difficult to focus on material that isn’t a top priority, he said. But he has devoured dozens of books on crypto.

“When I’m interested in something, I’ll be up until 2 in the morning working on it for six hours at a time,” he said.

Boyang Wang portrait.

UC assistant professor Boyang Wang. Photo/Jay Yocis/UC Creative + Brand

Hemmerle said he was encouraged by assistant professor Boyang Wang, who teaches computer science at UC and is the program director of UC’s new bachelor’s degree program in cybersecurity engineering.

Wang said cryptocurrency is a disruptive innovation that is shaping both the economy and technology.

“Modern cryptography (or crypto in short) has been evolving since the 1970s,” Wang said. “But as a sub-field of crypto, cryptocurrency is relatively young and can be considered as a ‘disruptive field’ with the rise of blockchains and Bitcoins.”

Wang said students like Hemmerle who are interested in these emerging technologies face risks and potential rewards.

“Working in a new field is never easy as there are still many unknowns,” he said. “On the other hand, it also makes the teaching and learning process exciting, where students can learn the latest technologies and skills. Students will have the opportunities to grow with a new field together and prepare themselves well for new job opportunities and career paths.

“I think cryptocurrency, as well as cybersecurity in general, offers fruitful opportunities for future careers in various aspects, including math, algorithms, data, software, hardware and more,” Wang said.

Jake Hemmerle poses for a photo.

UC computer science student Jake Hemmerle. Photo/Provided

When he’s not writing code for emerging financial technologies, Hemmerle likes to travel and put his skills to the test in the adrenaline-soaked extreme sport of BASE jumping in which parachutists leap from skyscrapers, cliffs and other high places. Fun trivia: BASE is an acronym for building, antenna, span and Earth.

“BASE has been my latest hobby. I still need to jump a building and a cliff. I just flew out to jump at a bridge in Idaho,” he said.

Hemmerle grew up in Cincinnati and graduated from St. Xavier High School. His parents are both UC alumni. What he’s enjoyed most at his time at UC is the opportunity to travel. He’s worked in San Francisco and Zurich, Switzerland.

“All of these things I wouldn’t have experienced without being in a school that offered a co-op program like UC,” he said. “It’s given me a serious edge over other students.”

For students enrolling at UC, he offers some advice: learning doesn’t stop when you leave the classroom.

“Falling in love with learning is super important. It’s something people underestimate,” he said. “Ambition sticks out more than GPA, so if you are interested in something, go learn it. Give it your attention. It gives you an edge and shows you want to invest in that space.”

Featured image at top: Cryptocurrency like Bitcoin is becoming more ubiquitous. Photo/cryptowallet.com/Wikimedia Commons

Jake Hemmerle adjusts his helmet while standing atop a gorge.

UC computer science student Jake Hemmerle prepares to make a BASE jump. Photo/Provided

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