John Urschel Visits State High


Angel Zheng

On February 19th, former football player and Penn State graduate John Urschel came to State High to speak about himself and his current research in mathematics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The event was held by math club but it was open to anyone interested.

Before going into the Q&A session, Urschel began his talk with a game of dots and lines. After the students became more familiar with the rules of the game, he challenged the students to a round. He won the game and left a homework for the students to understand how the game works mathematically.

Urschel explained he first saw the game at a course at MIT, where he is currently doing work in machine learning.

He believes “at the heart of any machine learning problem,” there exists “a fundamental math problem.” While working with the machine learning community and attending some of the top machine learning conferences, he said that he did not think any of the people he met were good good.

“Every technique they used to solve the problems were ways which should work theoretically but there was a chance that they would not work,” Urschel said. “They did not think there was a good technique until I said, ‘Why don’t we try this?’”

Whenever Urschel has a problem, he tries to compare it to previous problems. He often asks himself question such as “how did I solve the previous problems,” “does the same techniques carry over,” and “how can I manipulate the techniques to solve the [new] problem.” Urschel enjoys “toying around” with different problems. For example, there are math problems he has worked off and on over the years. Ultimately, he believes there is no one solution to understanding the basics of any issue.

“If there was a recipe,” Urschel said, “so many people would have done it.”

Urschel’s favorite aspect of math is graph theory. Although some people really need the application, he stated that he loves “beautiful math and application is just the cherry on top.”

Urschel said, “I get it to the application part and try to reduce it to math.”

Urschel was drafted by the Baltimore Raven in 2014. While he was still in the team, he began a Ph.D. in mathematics at MIT, focusing on spectral graph theory, numerical linear algebra, and machine learning. He announced his retirement from the NFL last year to focus on his Ph.D. Transitioning from playing football to studying at MIT was not very difficult for Urschel; instead, he experienced the most difficulties from playing football while working at MIT.

“I was a mess,” Urschel said. However, practicing math did offer some help to him playing football. Math helped him become good with making quick decisions, which in turn gave him to think quick on the field. Other than football, he believes math helps him in everyday life as well.

At MIT, Urschel met some of the world’s most brilliant minds. He recalled talking with Terrence Tau and said, “If you think you love math, you have to hang out with Terry Tau and you will know you don’t love math.”

In comparison to MIT, he believes the best thing about Penn State “is that when [he] was reading [his] undergrad and masters degree, professors were happy about meeting and talking to him.” He said that the MIT professors would not do that for you unless you won many awards.

At the end of his talk, Urschel gave a few advice for students looking to go into math.

“Learn how to think for yourself,” he explained. “There is a difference between practitioners and researchers. You have to take what you have learned and try to apply it to something tougher.”

Urschel stated his passion is “trying to be one of the world’s youngest mathematician.”

As for the future, he said, “I would like to be a professors in five years. I would like have one result I can hang my head on—something elegant, something nice.”