From NFL to MIT: John Urschel looking to increase diversity in mathematics

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, former NFL offensive lineman John Urschel stood among students from all backgrounds and colors at the National Museum of Mathematics in Manhattan and asked a couple of questions.

How many want to be a football player? Nearly every hand shot up.

How many want to be a doctor? Hardly anyone lifted their arm.

Urschel didn't have to be an MIT math whiz -- which, for a fact, he is -- to figure out how this all adds up.

“It’s very hard to dream of being in a career if you can’t relate to anyone who’s actually in that field,” Urschel said.

He retired in 2017 after three seasons with the Baltimore Ravens so he could fully commit to his dream of earning a doctorate in applied mathematics. Urschel, who is Black, wants to empower Black children to follow similar paths in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

In coordination with the museum, Urschel is hosting an online panel discussion, “Bending the Arc,” on Wednesday. This brings together a group of five distinguished African American mathematicians to talk about their experiences and love of math while serving as inspiration to a younger generation.

“Now more than ever, it’s really important that we highlight some of the diverse areas of mathematics that don’t typically get seen every day,” Urschel said.

As an undergraduate student at Penn State, Urschel redefined the term "mathlete." He posted a 4.0 GPA in getting his master’s while being named first-team All-Big 10 in football. Urschel acknowledges he didn’t experience as many obstacles as other African American mathematicians because he received support from his teammates.

But Urschel has heard numerous stories about how minority students have had a harder time finding groups to do problem sets and have a difficult time identifying with graduate students or faculty members.

It's been estimated there are perhaps only a dozen Black mathematicians among nearly 2,000 tenured faculty members in the nation's top 50 math departments, according to a New York Times article published in 2019. Fewer than 1% of the doctorates in math are awarded to African Americans.

"I feel like [Urschel] is in a position to really move the needle with kids,” said Cindy Lawrence, CEO and executive director of the National Museum of Math.

Urschel has been a popular ambassador for math. Even after being selected in the fifth round by the Ravens in 2014, he made the time to talk to high school math classes in Baltimore on his one day off.

Recently, Urschel received an email from a student who listened to one of his talks about four years ago. The student wanted to let Urschel know that he's at Penn State and majoring in engineering.

"Those are the things you hope for, and I think these things do make a difference,” Urschel said. "I know I wouldn’t be where I am today as a mathematician if it wasn’t for a lot of specific people, a lot of different mathematicians deciding that I was worth their time.”

Urschel, 29, is a fifth-year doctorate student at MIT, and he expects to graduate in the spring. His research focus has been on numerical linear algebra, graph theory and data science learning.

He joined the board of trustees at the National Museum of Mathematics and was approached about this online forum to promote diversity over the past couple of months.

"We felt it was important, especially given what was going on in the country at the time,” Lawrence said. "This is making sure Black children who like math see math as a welcoming place for them and as a place where they can succeed -- and where others have succeeded.”

In his talks with students, Urschel often uses his stories about football to gain their attention. He’ll then admit that the talk isn’t about sports but math.

While his lifelong passions have been football and math, he has usually kept them separate. Urschel has tried to stay away from sports analytics for now because he doesn’t want to pigeonhole himself in the field. He continues to watch football, and it’s for more than just entertainment purposes.

In January, Urschel became one of three new members on the College Football Playoff selection committee.

Asked if he could bring a new formula to the process, Urschel said, “These are things I’m not supposed to talk about.”

What Urschel loves talking about is math. He wants to convey his excitement about his field to today’s youth. It’s why he mentors undergraduates and tries to provide a good example to high school students. His hope is Wednesday’s event will be the first of many.

"When I look back at my career and look back at certain role models and certain professors who had an impact on me because they took the time that they didn’t have to,” Urschel said. “This is something I have a responsibility for."