Meet Talithia Williams

  • Posted 04.25.18
  • NOVA

What if you could use data from your body to learn you’re pregnant or to discover you have a thyroid issue? Renowned for her popular TED Talk, "Own Your Body's Data", Talithia Williams takes complex numerical concepts and makes them understandable to wide audiences.

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Running Time: 04:25

“As a statistician, I want people to show me the data so I can decide for myself,” Talithia says in her TED talk. She’s been using this strategy since her childhood, correcting her dad whenever he’d say, “I told you that a hundred times,” and more recently, convincing her doctor not to induce labor.

Talithia’s passion for math blossomed as an AP Calculus student in high school. But she didn’t know of any mathematicians that looked like her. “I didn't think anything of it until I got to Spelman College, which is a historically black college for women,” she tells NOVA Wonders. “I met black women mathematicians for the first time, and I was like, ‘Oh, this is something I can do.’”

Talithia earned her Bachelor’s in mathematics from Spelman and went on to receive a Master’s in mathematics from Howard University and a Ph.D. in statistics from Rice University.

Since then, she’s held research appointments at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA’s Johnson Space Center and the National Security Agency. She’s also partnered with the World Health Organization to develop a mathematical model used to predict the cataract surgical rate for countries in Africa. Through her research and work in the community at large, she is helping change the collective mindset regarding STEM in general and math in particular—rebranding the field of mathematics as anything but dry, technical or male-dominated, by presenting it as a logical, productive career path that is crucial to the future of the country.

Currently, Talithia is the Associate Dean for Research and Experiential Learning and an Associate Professor of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California. In 2015, she received the Mathematical Association of America’s Henry L. Alder Award for Distinguished Teaching by a Beginning College or University Mathematics Faculty Member, which honors faculty whose teaching is effective, extraordinary and extends its influence beyond the classroom. Active in her faith community, she serves as a Christian marriage mentor with her husband and is the mother of three boys.

“I am so excited to do NOVA Wonders because I really want to be an example for the scientists that came before me and for the kids who are coming after me,” Talithia says, adding that her childhood books came alive when she watched PBS as a kid. “I grew up watching these scientists on television, showing their work and being excited about their work, and I remember as a little girl being like, ‘Oh my gosh. They get to spend their whole day exploring what I daydreamed about.’ For me, to have that opportunity to be that example for the next generation is so exciting.”

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Dr. Talithia Williams, Ph.D. Host, NOVA Wonders; Associate Dean for Research and Experiential Learning and Associate Professor of Mathematics, Harvey Mudd College Enlarge Photo credit: © WGBH Educational Foundation

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