From Raven to researcher: a conversation with John Urschel at NYU Stern

For most people, the term “mathlete” is a figurative expression used to describe students who participate in math competitions. For John Urschel, “mathlete” is a literal description of his career path. Urschel pursued a career in the National Football League (NFL), playing for the Baltimore Ravens, before retiring in July 2017 to pursue a career as a mathematician.

The NYU Stern School of Business hosted a fireside chat between Professor and Dean Emeritus Peter Henry and John Urschel on March 22, 2018 at 6 p.m. During the chat, Urschel spoke not only about his non-traditional career path but also about those influencers in his life as well as those he would like to influence.

Since leaving football, Urschel has been working toward his PhD in Applied Mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  However, Urschel’s interest in mathematics can be traced back to childhood, to a time before he knew about the game of football. Urschel credits his mother for helping nurture his skills and talent in math; she picked up on her son’s affinity for puzzles and numbers.

“If I came home with a grade of a 98, instead of a 100,” Urschel said, “my mother would meet with my teacher and question her as to what I could do to improve my performance.”

Urschel’s teachers also picked up on his talent. By high school, math class became a free period for Urschel. Teachers recognized Urschel’s advanced mathematical ability and gave him a level of flexibility not available to other students. Urschel picked up another hobby in high school: football. When asked what attracted him to football, Urschel responded that he loved hitting people out on the field.

Urschel went on to play football and study mathematics at Pennsylvania State University (Penn State). It was there that he realized two things. First, that he was pretty talented in math. Second, that he wasn’t going to fulfill his mother’s dream for him, which was to become a “rocket scientist.”

Growing up in Buffalo, New York, Urschel never knew exactly how talented he was when it came to math. He knew he has some skill relative to his friends and peers in Buffalo. However, he didn’t have the insight to understand how his skills compared to others from different cities, states, and countries.

One moment that sticks out in his mind is when he was taking a mathematics course taught by a graduate student. The teacher asked if anyone knew how to solve a particular equation or problem on the board. Urschel raised his hand and provided the solution. The teacher was amazed by the speed at which Urschel figured it out and remarked that he should be teaching the class. Urschel used each math class as a test to see how far he could go.

The tests were a little bit harder in football. Urshel stated, “Football did not come as naturally to me. I had to work more for it.” Nonetheless, he made it through college with a 4.0 GPA and was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in the fifth round. Not only that, but due to research he conducted with his mentor, Penn State Professor of Mathematics Ludmil Zikatanov, he has a theorem named after him (the Urschel-Zikatanov Theorem).

For Urschel, his personal future is focused on the future of his field (the academic one). Urschel wants to change the perception and reputation of mathematics. As an African American, Urschel has introduced a new level of diversity to the field of applied mathematics. He regularly visits students and he volunteers to talk to many of them about math and his career path. He views words of encouragement and support to be an important part of the learning process. Urschel recommends that teachers act and communicate more like coaches. When you miss a field goal or a play, a coach is there to encourage you to try again and be the best you can be.

As Urschel pursues a career as a professor and researcher, he is literally and figuratively changing the field of mathematics.

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