How HLF changed my life: John Urschel

BLOG: Heidelberg Laureate Forum

Laureates of mathematics and computer science meet the next generation
Heidelberg Laureate Forum

The COVID-19 pandemic forces us all to pause, reflect, and adapt. While the 8th Heidelberg Laureate Forum has been postponed to September 2021, this year’s Virtual HLF will take place from Monday, September 21 until Friday, September 25, 2020. Its motto: Traversing Separation.

An excellent opportunity to review seven successful years of HLF and to follow-up on some alumni and their path since then.

Who are you, where are you from and what is your scientific background?
My name is John Urschel. I’m a fifth-year PhD student in mathematics at MIT and preparing to apply for postdoctoral positions this fall.

Photo courtesy of John Urschel

In which year did you attend the HLF and what were you doing back then?
I attended the HLF in 2018, shortly after I had passed the qualifying exams for my PhD program, and while I starting to form my research work.

What inspired you most during the HLF?
Attending the plenary talks by some of the most renowned mathematicians in the world was an amazing experience. The talk by Costis Daskalakis was particularly memorable. But as inspiring as the talks were, the informal interactions with people like Costis were even more so. These interactions gave me a brief glimpse into how top researchers approach their work.

What is your best memory you have from your stay in Heidelberg?
My best memory is spending time with some of my Australian friends in our spare time, walking around the streets of Heidelberg. I still keep in touch with some of the other young researchers I met during the event.

John Urschel on his HLF experience.

What has happened in your life since then and in which position are you currently working?
Since this event, I have been quite busy working on my thesis research. Right now I am preparing to enter the next stage of my career as a postdoctoral researcher, and then, eventually, a professor.

Which advice would you give the next generation of Young Researchers?
The biggest advice I would give is to interact with the professors at the event as much as possible. This really is an invaluable experience and one that has influenced how I approach my own research.

How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your professional and private life?
For me personally, the pandemic has not affected my professional life much, as my research generally only requires a piece of paper and a pen. My wife and I have a two-year-old, and so the pandemic has certainly made it more difficult to work without childcare assistance.

What is the most valuable lesson the pandemic taught you so far?
The pandemic has definitely shown me how important human interaction is. I think we are all suffering as a result of this missing component in all of our work.

Last year, you published your memoir “Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football”. What is the quintessence you want people to take away from this book?
The main thing I hope readers of my memoir take away is that you should not be afraid to set your own path and follow your passions, whatever they may be.

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Jens-Steffen Scherer is a neuroscientist, science communicator, and moderator. Besides pursuing his Ph.D. at the University of Oldenburg, he works for the National Institute for Science Communication (NaWik) and the Südwestrundfunk (SWR). In 2018 Jens-Steffen won the 8th Science Slam of Oldenburg. LinkedIn

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