Harvey Mudd College professor Talithia Williams believes in the power of data and has become an outspoken advocate for collecting and understanding personal health information in order to become an expert on oneself. Her TEDx Talk on this topic, which includes discussions about tracking blood pressure, temperature and weight, has been viewed online nearly 1.5 million times and has made Williams a sought-after speaker. It also attracted the attention of PBS television producers, who invited Williams to cohost NOVA Wonders, a six-part documentary series that will be showcased in a free event at Harvey Mudd College, Wednesday, May 2, from 6 to 8 pm in the Shanahan Center for Teaching and Learning Auditorium.
Williams, associate dean for research and experiential learning and associate professor of mathematics; Julia Cort, NOVA Wonders executive producer; Flip Tanedo, assistant professor in theoretical physics at University of California, Riverside; and Harvey Mudd President Maria Klawe will participate in an advance screening of NOVA Wonders, which takes viewers on a journey to the frontiers of science, where researchers are tackling some of the biggest questions about life and the cosmos. The screening will be followed by a panel discussion on how science communication can be more inclusive and ensure that science is open to anyone with the curiosity, drive and passion to make it their life’s pursuit.
Williams’ academic specialty is statistical models that emphasize the spatial and temporal structure of data. She has modeled rainfall to better predict flooding in Houston and cataract incidence to forecast cataract surgical rates in African countries. She’s also gained research experience at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA’s Johnson Space Center and the National Security Agency.
But as her TEDx Talk demonstrates, Williams makes complex concepts—and herself—relatable to a wide audience, something that impressed NOVA producers. In the series, Williams and fellow hosts Rana el Kaliouby (a computer scientist) and Andre Fenton (a neuroscientist), lead viewers through discussions about organisms living within our bodies, animal communication and extraterrestrial life.
Williams began her education and career knowing the number of women in mathematics was low, and that ever fewer of them were African American. But Williams was motivated and had mentors—male and female, African American and otherwise—who encouraged her persistence.
Williams went on to graduate study in mathematics at Howard University. But then, she says, a biostatistics class showed her the power of drawing information from data. She transferred to Rice University, where she could earn a PhD in statistics.
By 2008, she had a doctorate and a faculty position at Harvey Mudd and has since become the first African-American woman to become a tenured professor here. Also aware that African-American women remain scarce in mathematics, she has committed to being a role model and mentor to students.
“When I grew up, I didn’t know women who looked like me did math. I spent three summers at NASA and didn’t even know about the women of Hidden Figures until the movie came out,” says Williams, whose book Power in Numbers: The Rebel Women of Mathematics, debuts in May. She hopes it will help students—and everyone else—be better informed about influential women in her field.
For her efforts, Williams recently received The Claremont Colleges Faculty Diversity Award for Mentoring. She says, “I feel a responsibility to be an example to the generation of girls and women coming behind me. I know how much I needed an example of what I could become, of someone I could emulate. It’s a privilege for me to live a life that can inspire people to become more than they ever imagined possible.”
The May 2 NOVA Wonders event is free and open to the public.