Talithia Williams

Math as easy as pi

By Brittney Payette

Student Life Editor

At 3 p.m. on March 25, the final guest speaker for Cameron University’s Academic Festival XI “Connections: Information Transfer Between People” was STEM advocate Talithia Williams, who spoke over Zoom. 

Williams has a PhD in Statistics from Rice University and is an associate professor for mathematics at Harvey Mudd College. Williams encourages women and minorities to be involved in STEM. 

“We really try to make sure that the diversity of our faculty represents the diversity of our students,” Williams said. “we want our students to be able to see themselves as mathematicians.”

She spent three summers at NASA’s jet propulsion laboratory. 

In 2015, she won the Mathematical Association of America’s Henry L. Alder Award for Distinguished Teaching. 

Williams also cohosted a PBS series called Nova Wonders. The 6-part series explored a variety of questions, such as can we build a brain or what are animals saying. 

Additionally, she is the author of “Power in Numbers: The Rebel Women of Mathematic”. The book describes the influence of women in the realm of mathematics in the past and present. 

Williams has given a Ted Talk called “Own Your Body’s Data”, in which she explains how mathematics can help people view the world in a different way and how math can help to change the world. 

Williams said that her Advanced Placement Calculus teacher in high school encouraged her to major in mathematics when she went to college.

“I didn’t know any other black women who were mathematicians,” Williams said. “It seemed like a foreign concept, that I could be a mathematician. That really stuck with me.” 

She said that she really fell in love with statistics when she took Biostatistics as an elective. In the class, they were looking at data on women who smoked while pregnant. The data found that women that smoked while pregnant had shorter pregnancies and the babies had lower birth weights. They concluded that smoking caused babies to have a lower birth weight. She was surprised to find out that tobacco companies hired lawyers to refute the research. 

“That was the moment when I said, ‘oh my gosh, look at the information that you can get from data, and look how powerful this information is,’” Williams said. 

Williams said that Harvey Mudd College hosts an annual conference on campus for girls and their families from the community. They focus on fostering excitement for STEM. They also ask local female STEM professionals to go to the conference and talk about how they view science and to serve as mentors for the girls.

Williams also discussed how she experienced imposter syndrome when she was at Rice University because of the community not treating her as someone who belonged there. 

“I still have it today,” said Williams. “It doesn’t just go away when you become ‘successful’”.

Cameron University’s Director of Events Management Carey Monroe asked Williams about how to combat people’s ideas of what a person should look like. In a previous job, Monroe said that she was judged based on how she looked rather than how well she actually performed her job. 

“I’m curious about your best advice for how to battle against perception when you’re trying to do your job,” Monroe said. “I made a lot of effort to learn what my rights are, and kind of where that line is.” 

Williams said that she had to learn to prioritize her own well being because no one else would. She also had to figure out how to not care about what other people think about her.

“I was so consumed with sort of presenting this image, right, thinking that somehow that image is going to shield me from certain behavior, and it wasn’t,” Williams said. “For me, I really had to say like this is who I am… If this doesn’t work in this environment, then I need to find an environment that it is going to work with.”

Williams is also a mother to three boys, and she said that she wants her sons to be caring, to think for themselves, and to be good people. 

“I really want them to be honest, god-fearing, loving people,” Williams said. “The priority is in how they treat each other, how we love each other as a family, and how they love other people.”

Currently, Williams said that she is working on hosting a new show with PBS called “From Zero to Infinity”. The show is going to discuss things such as the origins of numbers. 

To find out more information about Talithia Williams go to https://www.talithiawilliams.com/. Her book, “Power in Numbers: The Rebel Women of Mathematics”, can be purchased on Amazon. 

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