Math, Football and Your Future: A Conversation with John Urschel

Math, Football and Your Future: A Conversation with John Urschel

– Welcome to Pomona, nice to meet you. – Likewise. – I’m John Harpole, I am
part of this community here. I am happy and proud to
be associated with Pomona thanks to my wife, President Gabi Starr, and we were discussing and we realized this is a chance for
us to informally speak to one of our honored
guests here at the college as a way of reaching
out to folks who may not be able to make it to
your talks either here in Millikan or at Bridges later today. So, just a little bit of background, so when you were a kid, or what
I’ve been reading about you, is that your mother
described in an article that you had an early fascination
with patterns and puzzles. When did you figure out that you had an aptitude for mathematics? – It wasn’t until I got
to college, actually, where I sort of started to recognize ‘hey, I think I’m pretty good
at math,’ in the sense that… You’re very insulated when you’re younger, so I was always the best
student mathematically in any classroom I was
in, but in high school or middle school this doesn’t mean much. Because just because
you’re extremely strong in math in your own
classroom in whatever school you’re in doesn’t mean you’re
a very strong math talent. So I didn’t realize that
I had true math potential until I got to college
and I really sort of… The world was much more open to me, I interacted with math professors, I got to see what elite math
people in the world were doing. – Well that’s an interesting question ’cause another comment
I read of you was that when you were in high
school, the same environment, there were professors, and… sorry, there were coaches
who early on encouraged you and saw a potential NFL prospect. – That is true. – And laid that before you, but none of your math teachers laid out an alternative career in mathematics. Is that a function of… what do you think that’s a function of? – I think it’s just a different culture. Football culture is one where coaches really do inspire young people to dream and aspire to become
great at what they do. And I think often teachers
can mock that, somewhat, but I think that it’s a reasonable thing for teachers to have that
same level of enthusiasm and inspire other young
people to try to be great. And even if it’s just as unreasonable as telling a high school
kid that he’s gonna be a professional football player. – Is it maybe a question
of noise or expectations, meaning we can say ‘what is
a great football player,’ and I can point to J.J. Watt, right? But how many people can point
to a Fields Medal winner? – No, it’s true. I think
that’s part of the issue. I think, agreed, part of… I mean, the majority of the work is done for the football
coaches, football’s cool, but I think there is something to be said for math teachers recognizing that they need to increase awareness about say, Fields medalists, or the elite people in these fields that they teach. Because it’s hard to say ‘I want to be the best’ at some field when you don’t even know what that looks like. – [Harpole] Right. Exactly.
– Yeah, of course. – You can’t even name someone… – [Harpole] When you can’t…
– Yeah. – [Harpole] you can’t…right.
– Yeah, of course. – So, I guess a quick
question for you, as an aside. So you’re describing, and, alright. We’re gonna stop for a second, and I’m gonna ask you the question. You are fascinated by this shape? – No, I mean just, you know,
– (laughter) I’m just, I’m looking at it. I think it’s a…truncated…icosahedron but my…I’m not as good
with this as I used to be. But the interesting thing is, and this is what’s sort of bothering me, is that it’s so close to being very nice. Because the vertices are
also a convex polytope. But it’s a different convex polytope. So I don’t know what they did with this, because that doesn’t make sense to me. – How would you fix it? – Make the vertices the same
polytope as the big polytope, that just seems like common sense, but… but I don’t know. – Now, would you attribute
this to pattern recognition, to puzzling, or just to sort of…
– [Urschel] Attribute what? – The observation. – I would attribute it to being in front of me,
(Harpole laughing) so…yeah – Okay, fair enough. So, let me ask you this,
as a, I’m gonna jump ahead, (mumbles) And I’m gonna come back to
this issue of role models. One thing you were involved with is this tight with– you know collaborate with Texas Instruments on this #genSTEM. – Yes, among other programs
– Amongst other… Well can you tell us
a little bit about it? – Yes, so that program
in particular is sort of stressing the concept
that coming generations, especially young people in school today, when they’re joining the workforce the, primarily the new
jobs that will be made will have some STEM aspect to them. Even if it’s not something that they would classically consider as STEM. So, we have a number of worksheets that we’ve produced for teachers to use in the classroom, a number of videos for them to show as well, showing that there’s science and
technology and mathematics in fields that you
wouldn’t even expect them, like running an ice cream parlor, or being a fashion designer,
or say painting murals. – Well I’m going to
jump ahead a bit on that and move from, from possibly theoretical to maybe today’s Senate
hearings of Mark Zuckerberg. And at one point in
explaining what a graph was in mathematical terms, you actually used Facebook as a good example. – Facebook is an example.
Well, Facebook is a… Facebook is a company.
– [Harpole] (mumbling) – …or, another way of putting it, the series of discrete interactions… – Between its users. – Precisely. Between its users. So that’s a, that’s interesting because the question that I have is, that is a classic interface, it’s
a great description of a mathematical graph, but it also is a really interesting
interface between mathematics and a human experience,
which is ultimately what drives evaluation,
what drives the users, and also creates new interactions between over a billion discrete users. So how do you think of taking
both your applied math work, and as you’re working with
STEM, between, you know, #genSTEM and other initiatives
you’re working with, and maybe thinking about the interaction between the humanistic arts
and the mathematical arts? Or do you make a
distinction between the two? – I think there is very much
a distinction between the two. I don’t see great
connections between the two. I do my work with Texas
Instruments because I do believe it’s very important
to inspire young people, and my working graph theory
I believe has its own theoretical merit, but also
is extremely applicable because, while the natural world we live in is very
continuous in many ways, the interactions that
we have and the world that we live in as
humans is very discrete, in terms of discrete decision-making, in terms of going to a place or not, knowing someone or not knowing
them, and this gives rise to graphical structures
just about everywhere. – Right, and that I think
is the fascinating part is that there is, as we move
increasingly to an AI world, is the predictive nature of
some of the tools that you’ve been working with to help
predict and maybe anticipate human interactions and possible groupings. So, one thing that you talked about was the importance of…so you had, you know we haven’t really
touched on football yet. But I wanna ask you this, because we have tremendous student
athletes here at Pomona. And one thing I came
across is that you have a deep passion for mathematics,
you write textbooks, you write journal articles
and papers, but your teammates enhanced your undergraduate experience. Can you tell me a little bit about your… the role of team in your
academic experience. – The majority of my best friends are guys I played with in college. And these are guys where,
when you’re in college and you’re playing college athletics, you really have a closeness on a team that you don’t experience in high school and you won’t experience
at the professional level, and you will be hard-pressed to experience through academic endeavor, so I think it’s something great for just
about anyone to experience, whether it’s an actual sport,
or a club in a university, and I would say that my friends
kept me very, very broad, and made sure I still
had diverse interests. – And did it actually, did the team and the team environment
and the interactions and support, did that impact
your work as a mathematician? – No, but I would say it’s impacted my development as a
person, as a whole, yes. – Excellent. So I know
we’re cruising along, and I’m just gonna run
around, sorry, (laughs) – [Urschel] Run around all you want. – Alright, I was reading the notes from the AMS notices, – [Urschel] Yes, I see
– [Harpole] (laughs) that you have.
– [Harpole] (laughs) – And I was fascinated
because I realized that the author, I’ll hold this up, the author laid out the AFC and NFC teams and found a set of relationships that determined that the Ravens’ path to the playoffs was unusually difficult given the groupings, using one of John’s own theories as a testing tool. So this begs the question, we
are three hours from Vegas, are you planning on using this in any kind of fantasy league? – Yeah, you know, I’m not. I have to say, I have never really gone to
the fantasy football sphere. I think I’m gonna keep it that way. – [Harpole] Alright (laughs) So here’s a quick question for you. You talked about getting the math and finally getting exposed
to these mathematics. You co-authored four papers
with Professor Ludmil Zikatanov. – Ludmil Zikatanov. – Ah, Zikatanov. Sorry.
My Bulgarian’s terrible. – That’s okay, mine’s not
(Harpole laughs) much better, yeah. – Was he a mentor to you? – Yes, a mentor, and he’s
one of my best friends. – Would you describe
his…do you think a mentor in mathematics in particular is essential? Is it really an apprenticeship discipline, or is it something that can be pursued by a hard-working,
high-achieving individual? – I think if you’re…I think it requires a certain baseline of intelligence to understand the objects
you’re working with, but given that I think hard work certainly helps more
than more intelligence. And it’s a field where
having mentors really helps, but it’s also a field in
which simply having access, especially in the generation we live in, having access to knowledge
is often sufficient. – Having access to knowledge? – Yeah, so the papers online, the math books you can get
through Amazon, I think it’s a very open field. I mean,
I’ve largely taught myself the majority, a great deal
of things I’ve learned. – That’s interesting.
And so you read in your, in a couple places, it
said, and I’ll quote, ‘the happiest I’ve ever been
in my life is when I’m at MIT.’ – Yeah, this is true. – Why is that? – I’m doing exactly what I wanna be doing, where I wanna be doing it, and with whom I wanna be doing it, so. – Did you face…did you have immediate acceptance when you went to MIT? – I didn’t really concern
myself with that, actually. This isn’t something I think about. – [Harpole] Oh, that’s interesting. – Yeah, I don’t really
think about being accepted. – Now I ask that because there oftentimes, as an athlete going into
a world that’s not known for producing lots of athletes, it has, but it’s not known for it, as a man of color going
into a field that has some, certainly a significant amount
of international diversity, but domestically probably not as much, were those factors that impacted you, or again they didn’t quite register, you were more focused on the work? – I’m focused on the work. I’m focused on doing
the things I wanna do, and enjoying my time there, and, yes. I don’t really define myself
based off my characteristics. – And then, so this is important to some of our students who are thinking about pursuing a terminal degree, or have already been accepted to programs. You have developed a advisory relationship with Michel Goemans, now
I’m gonna mispronounce the name again, am I not? Sorry. – Michel Goemans. – Goemans, thank you. How do you select each
other, how did you select him as an advisor and
how did he select you? – I looked at all the professors
in the math department, I liked his work the
most, I liked how he… I liked his math, I
thought it was elegant. I liked how he presented things. I told him I wanted him to be my advisor, he had some skepticism. He gave me a problem to think about, and I, it wasn’t unreasonably difficult, but I solved it and I kept peppering him and he ended up advising me. – What fueled the skepticism? – Hm? – What fueled his skepticism? – I suppose not knowing me. I think when you’re thinking about advising a PhD student I think you should make sure they’re good first. – [Harpole] Right. – Yeah.
– [Harpole] Fair enough. – So, yeah, I mean before I
work with anyone mathematically, if someone comes up to me and says, ‘hey, I want to solve a
math problem with you,’ well, I might vet someone
a little bit first. – Fair enough. So you’re here in Pomona, you’ve got a full day ahead of you, but I want to ask this question for you. So, we’re blessed with one of the finest student bodies in the country. Many of our current
students have been accepted into, really, frankly,
elite graduate programs. Many of them will end up with a PhD, many going into academia
or research for themselves. As a full-time student
at one of the world’s truly great institutions, what advice do you have for potential PhD students? – Go to seminars. Go to seminars. It’s a great way for you to be introduced to different areas of your field that you wouldn’t have been introduced to. It’s a great way to learn different ways to think about things, and yeah. It’s a great…grad school
is a great time to explore. Go to seminars, bring a pad, bring a pen, and also bring a paper, so if the talk’s bad you just read the paper. – (laughs) Genius advice. – Yeah, so. – Thank you.
– Yeah, of course. – I really appreciate
your time, let’s walk. – Okay.
– Alright.

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