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DeKalb, Ill. — The career trajectory of NIU graduate Tyler Burch has taken an unusual turn, to say the least.
Just last spring, Burch earned his Ph.D. in particle physics from NIU. Now he’s going from studying the properties of an enigmatic subatomic particle known as the Higgs boson to analyzing the mysteries of fastballs, sliders, hits and homeruns for the Boston Red Sox.
On Jan. 19, Burch started his new job as a data analyst for the team’s Baseball Research and Development unit.
“I’m really excited,” says Burch, a 27-year-old Aurora resident who grew up a Cardinals fan in downstate Belleville. He says he wasn’t much of a ballplayer as a youngster, turned to other interests as a teen and then reconnected with baseball in college, when the Cards won the 2011 World Series.
“Baseball has been something I’ve been passionate about for the bulk of the last 10 years,” says Burch, who’s sporting a Red Sox cap these days. “Because of that, I got excited about baseball analysis. It was something I did for fun.”
The story leading up to Burch’s new career might best be likened to a Pedro Martinez changeup—not what you’d expect from a talented physicist investigating the building blocks of nature.
Burch chose NIU for his graduate work because of its collaborations with some of the world’s top particle physics research centers. As part of his graduate assistantship with Professor Jahred Adelman, Burch spent more than a year working on the ATLAS experiment at the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) on the sprawling campus of the CERN laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland.
Then two years ago, while still living at CERN, Burch snagged a prestigious graduate student research award from the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science. The award provided funding for his dissertation research, which used high-performance computing and machine-learning tools at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont for investigations into the unusual properties of the Higgs boson, a particle discovered at CERN in 2012.
It was a metaphorical homerun for a student who arrived at NIU knowing little about computer programming or data science.
“When he came to NIU, Tyler really had to learn a lot, and he dove right in,” says Adelman, Burch’s adviser. “He became an expert in things like data programing, machine learning and analytics.”
Burch and Adelman bonded over physics—and baseball, which they often discussed. Adelman, a big Mets fan, often uses examples from baseball to introduce high school students to the beauty of physics.
“Physics is a subject deemed to be frightening by a large portion of the public,” Adelman says. “I use baseball to show that science is cool. There are many things you can see on the baseball field that demonstrate laws of physics but don’t require any scary math.”
Data analysis, however, does involve lots of complicated mathematics. It didn’t take Burch long to realize he could apply the advanced skills he was learning to answer complex questions about his favorite hobby. Burch published some of his baseball research on a fan site and on his own blog, with titles such as “Evaluating (pitcher) Lance Lynn’s Unexpected 2019” and “Classifying MLB Hit Outcomes.”
“Even until very recently, Tyler was doing these sorts of baseball studies and pinging ideas off me, asking me what I thought,” Adelman says. “He’s an insane sports buff, particularly about baseball.”
The movie “Moneyball” famously depicted the use of data analysis for baseball player selection in the early 2000s, but the field has come a long way since then, Burch says. Data analyses and models are used to guide position shifts on the field, help pitchers generate more velocity or ball spin, and help batters get more hits. Meanwhile, new technologies are being developed that contribute to the science.
As Burch tied up and prepared to defend his dissertation, he applied for a couple baseball jobs, scoring two interviews but nothing more. His resume was lacking, and it didn’t include much hardball lingo. His dissertation title alone must have dropped some jaws among baseball executives: “A Search for Resonant and Non-Resonant Di-Higgs Production in the γγbb Channel using the ATLAS Detector.”
About the time the pandemic hit, Burch completed his Ph.D. and took a job as a postdoctoral researcher with Argonne National Laboratory. It was a plum job unto itself, working to develop simulation and machine learning for particle physics on the upcoming Aurora supercomputer.
In his free time, with not much else to do, he increased his baseball studies and blog output. In mid-November, after Burch applied for a post with the Red Sox, the organization asked him to complete a homework assignment. A month later, the Red Sox asked Burch to walk their analysts through the statistical model he had created.
“It was an hour-and-a-half of going through code and plots,” Burch recalls. “I was using machine learning, so the model learns from the data.”
By the following day, Burch says, he found himself meeting virtually with the director of baseball analytics, an assistant general manager and scouting directors. Then, late in the evening two days before Christmas, the Red Sox called again.
“I’d just finished dinner with my fiancée, Natalie, so she was first to know,” Burch says. “She watched my face and heard my end of the conversation. When it sounded like an offer, she gave me a thumbs-up with a questioning look, to which I responded with a big thumbs-up and nod.
“The combination of this being my dream job, mixed with all the work I put into it, made the fact that it was turning into a reality feel entirely surreal. When I woke up the next morning, I had to go through my phone just to reassure myself that it did, in fact, happen.”
Adelman is thrilled over his student’s new career path.
“I’m happy for him,” Adelman says. “We’re using these tools for physics, but they’re applicable to a lot of things. Baseball is one of them.”
Media Contact: Tom Parisi
Northern Illinois University is a student-centered, nationally recognized public research university, with expertise that benefits its region and spans the globe in a wide variety of fields, including the sciences, humanities, arts, business, engineering, education, health and law. Through its main campus in DeKalb, Illinois, and education centers for students and working professionals in Chicago, Hoffman Estates, Naperville, Oregon and Rockford, NIU offers more than 100 areas of study while serving a diverse and international student body.