John Urschel is currently pursuing his PhD in mathematics at MIT. Image:  Jeffrey Beall (cc-by-3.0)
John Urschel is currently pursuing his PhD in mathematics at MIT. Image: Jeffrey Beall (cc-by-3.0)

He’s a self-described professional mathlete and chess enthusiast—a claim his Twitter feed corroborates (“Having a marvelous day full of English breakfast tea and convex polytopes.”). He’s also one of MIT’s newest PhD candidates in mathematics. But for now, most people recognize John Urschel as a guard/center for the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens.

Urschel’s careers in football and math took off at Penn State, where he earned both his undergraduate and masters degrees in mathematics—teaching an undergraduate course and racking up a number of academic awards along the way.

He was drafted by the NFL in 2014, but he continued to pursue math on the sidelines. In 2015, Urschel started in two playoff games while also co-authoring a paper on graph eigenfunctions that was published in the Journal of Computational Mathematics.

This offseason, Urschel will be studying spectral graph theory, numerical linear algebra, and machine learning. He tells MIT Spectrum that he’s excited to be at MIT because the Institute “has one of the best math programs in the world. In my opinion, it is the best.”

Urschel loves to share his passion for math, particularly with young people: “I’ll share it with anyone that will listen,” he admits. A champion of STEM education, he will be a keynote speaker at the March summit for Project Lead the Way, a leading provider of K–12 STEM programs.

Urschel doesn’t have any immediate plans to hang up his cleats—he’ll be back on the field with the Ravens this fall. But he does have some ideas about what his future holds. “Being a professor seems like an ideal profession for me,” he says. “I enjoy research, the feeling of shedding even the dimmest of light on the unknown and unsolved. I enjoy teaching; inspiring young people is a beautiful opportunity. A life full of these two things is a good one.”

John Urschel is a columnist at The Players Tribune, where he writes about math and football.

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