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Mathlete in the House: NFLer-cum-mathematician John Urschel to deliver public lecture at U of M

April 23, 2018 — 

When Stephen Kirkland, head of the Department of Mathematics, invited John Urschel, former NFL star, PhD student, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, (MIT), to speak at the U of M, the gesture, he confesses, wasn’t solely altruistic. There was a bit of self-interest at play as well.

John Urschel, PhD, MIT, Forbes’ top “30 under 30” outstanding young scientists, NFL Star.

“[Urschel] is doing really compelling work in spectral graph theory and linear algebra; those are two of my research areas, and I’m keen to learn more about his research. That’s the selfish bit. More importantly, Urschel consistently tells a positive story about mathematics, emphasizing not only its elegance but also its uncanny ability to yield insights in other domains. His public lecture will illustrate the power and grace inherent in mathematics, and I think that message will be of substantial interest to the university community.”

Whatever his motive, if Kirkland was happy to extend the invitation to speak here, Urschel seems equally pleased to have been invited.

“Part of the work I do is in his area, so it was very kind of him to email me because he’s a very big name in this field. Once he sent me the email, of course I was already aware of him and his work, so I accepted immediately.”

Urschel, who was born in Winnipeg and lived here a short while during his father’s medical residency is now a doctoral student in Applied Mathematics at MIT. His current focus is combinatorial optimization, which seeks optimal solutions to problems with a large but finite set of solutions. This work can be applied to logistics or operations: determining the shortest itinerary for a trip with many stops in it is an example of combinatorial optimization. 

What: John Urschel, lecture: “A Mild Introduction to the Multiplicative Weights Algorithm”

When: Thursday, April 26, 3:30 p.m.

Where: Robert Schultz Lecture Theatre, 91 Ralph Campbell Way, Fort Garry Campus

Retiring to math

Being accepted at MIT is a noteworthy achievement in and of itself. What makes Urschel’s story particularly compelling is the fact that he studied there while he was playing professional football. It wasn’t until last summer that he retired from the sport. 

‘Retiree’ may seem an odd title for a 26-year-old, but the reality is that Urschel left his role as an offensive lineman with the Baltimore Ravens in July 2017 after just three seasons. His love for the game hadn’t diminished, but the irony of putting his brain at risk every time he played did give him pause. Prompted in part by concern over chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative disease found in those who have suffered multiple head injuries, Urschel also felt that he was ready for the change in focus. 

“It felt like [it was] time. I knew the time was coming soon, and it was something I’d been thinking about. I’m very, very happy in retirement. I’m always slow to actually call it that because I don’t quite feel retired, because I’m working harder than ever. But I’m very much enjoying what I’m doing these days.”

When asked if he’s ever been worried that he wouldn’t be taken seriously as a mathematician because of his sports background, Urschel is emphatic.

“No, I was more concerned about doing good work, and letting my work speak for itself. That’s always been my approach. Don’t worry about doubt, don’t worry about any of these things, just do my work, do what I enjoy, do what I love, and then let that speak for itself.”

It’s been quite a journey so far. Since earning his BSc and two MSc degrees in mathematics from Penn State, Urschel has had nine scholarly articles published, an impressive achievement for a young mathematician. Of the nine, Urschel collaborated on four with his former mentor and good friend, Dr. Ludmil Zikatanov, to whom he was introduced by a Penn State colleague when he was just an undergrad.  

“It started off with me bothering him about a proof or property that I thought was true and how to go about showing it. It sort of grew and grew, and now he’s one of my best friends. I visit him often and we do a lot of work together.”

In fact, one of their best-known collaborations is called the Urschel-Zikatanov Theorem. It explores the connectedness of nodal decompositions of Fiedler vectors, and has received a fair amount of attention from the mathematics community to date.

“It’s been a great time working with [Ludmil]. I think we’ve been working together now for seven years, maybe? When we started out, I was very much a student, and he was very much a sort of mentor. Through the years it’s changed to the point where now we’re simply collaborators, and we’re very good friends. I really enjoy working with him, and regardless of what areas of math I end up focusing on or moving towards or what problems I’m working on, I’ll always have time to do work with him, independent of what the problem is.”

Urschel knows that his talent for math tends to take people by surprise, given what he used to do for a living. He believes that it’s the novelty of being a person who can excel both mentally and physically. Whatever it is, Urschel has received a great deal of media attention about it over the past few years. He’s been interviewed by the Huffington Post, Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone, HBO’s Real Sports, the Washington Post and the New York Times, to name just a few.

Through it all, Urschel’s passion for mathematics is what shines through. He’s been known to keep a blackboard in his bedroom, just for those late-night moments of mathematical inspiration. Math is the common thread in his life, with even his Twitter feed featuring all things math: jokes, cartoons, articles. Urschel admits that for him, math isn’t merely a subject in school.

“In part, math gives me a certain happiness. I truly just love math for math’s sake. I love learning. I love solving problems. Also, math gives me a way to sort of do these things that I very much love, that I’d very much do for free, for fun and get paid and have these things that I do actually help people as well. Help push our society forward, with respect to knowledge and technology.”

Playing chess is another thing that makes Urschel happy, and like most things in his life, he tends to go big or go home. He has played U.S. chess champion (and friend) Fabiano Caruana and met Russian chess superstar Gary Kasparov last summer. Urschel’s goal is to become a National Master of the game by 2020, which according to those in the chess world who should know, he is on track to achieving.

Unsurprisingly, Urschel is a keen student of those in his field who are already established and stand as models to emulate. Two names come immediately to mind when asked if he has any heroes in mathematics:

“[There’s] a guy by the name of Dan Spielman, who’s a professor at Yale and I look at his work and I’m just sort of in awe of the brilliant things he comes up with. Some of the papers of his that I’ve seen have some of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, and he’s certainly someone that I aspire to be like. Second is my current advisor, Michel Goemans, Interim Department Head, Mathematics, MIT who I guess unsurprisingly shares all the exact same characteristics. I think they’re my heroes for a reason because I aspire to be that type of mathematician. Someone who does extremely good work, solves interesting problems using different techniques in different areas and whose results have a sort of elegance about them. An elegance and a sort of timelessness, you could say.”

Having recently become a father for the first time, Urschel knows that his life is no longer just about what he can accomplish for himself. There is a much bigger world, one that could benefit from his work, now and in the future. As such, Urschel makes time in his busy schedule to visit schools with the goal of inspiring young students to study mathematics.

“As a mathematician, I believe it is my responsibility to help train the next generation of thinkers.”

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