Transcripts of our episodes are made available as soon as possible. They are not fully edited for grammar or spelling.
Dr. Talithia Williams is a mathematics professor at Harvey Mudd College, where she develops statistical models and applies them to environmental and social problems. Author of the book, Power in Numbers: The Rebel Women of Mathematics, Williams is known for taking sophisticated quantitative concepts and making them relatable to everyone, a skill which she illustrates in her TED Talk, “Own Your Body’s Data.” Talithia joins the podcast to talk about the rebel women of mathematics, the relevance of statistics in everyday life, and her view that God is a mathematician.
Tom: Well, Talithia, I want to welcome you to the show.
Talithia: Thanks for having me, Tom. I’m really excited to be here.
Tom: Well, I’m gonna start us off, early here in your life. Can you tell me, where did you grow up and, what did you love to do as a child?
Talithia: Yes, I grew up in Columbus, Georgia, which is about a hundred miles south of Atlanta. And I was a sister to two brothers. I had an older and a younger brother. We played outside a lot. You know, I’m a child of the 80s and the 90s. So, it was a lot of outdoor play, a lot of climbing trees and riding bikes. And, playing with Barbies, Atari, and Nintendo. I had a lot of fun as a kid, but, but mostly outside and just sort of exploring and hanging out with my brothers.
Tom: I feel like the fire department would be called if you saw a kid 20 feet up in a tree these days, but my sister and I did that, like, every day.
Talithia: Right, and we fell. I have the bruises to prove it. We had a second-floor balcony. and if I forgot my key, because you know when we got home, we let ourselves in. I would climb the tree up to the balcony and go in through a window that I always left unlocked. And I think about that now, like, what? I would never let my kids do that; you know?
Tom: Yep. Yep. Amazing. Oh, the 80s were great if people only knew. If people only knew.
Tom: It was good. Okay, tell me, too: What are your earliest memories of doing mathematics?
Talithia: Gosh, you know, I think in elementary school. It was just sort of the math that was put in front of me. I didn’t gravitate toward it in any way, or away from it. I remember distinctly in sixth grade; I made straight A’s in math for the entire year. And that was the first moment where I thought, oh, I might actually be pretty good at math. I did surprisingly well and then in eighth grade I was in pre-algebra and was doing well in pre-algebra.
I was like, hey, I want to be in the algebra class. Our junior high school only had one algebra class. It was not common to take algebra in eighth grade. I asked my teacher to put me in it halfway through the year. And she was just like, “Talithia, they’re halfway through.” And I was like, “that’s okay. I can do math. I’m good at it.” And so that was sort of the first time, you know, I was, I was almost sort of cocky about it. And when I got into the algebra class, she agreed. And I got a C in that first six weeks. I was like, “oh, I’m not as good as I think I am.” But I was willing to challenge myself in it and put myself in really uncomfortable situations, that I didn’t always excel in, but sort of found joy in anyway.
Tom: Who gave you the most encouragement, once you got into high school and hit stride with mathematics? Was it teachers? Parents?
Talithia: Yeah, definitely. My parents. My mom and dad were always really supportive academically and pushed me to do all the things and be all the things. And you know, they never presented math or science as something that I shouldn’t do, or I couldn’t do because of my race or my gender. And so, I felt well supported at home to challenge myself in fields where I didn’t always necessarily see representation.
Tom: When your teachers and parents saw your great aptitude, did anyone start encouraging you to pursue certain fields of study, or have their own dreams of where you would be, you know, 5, 10, 15 years down the road?
Talithia: Yeah, you know, my AP Calculus teacher, Mr. Dorman, who’s since passed away. He called me out into the hallway one time after class and said he wanted to talk to me. My first thought was obviously, “Oh, he’s graded my exam and he’s about to tell me how horrible I did on it,” because I was not the best AP Calculus student.
And he says, “Talithia, you know, you’re really bright in math. You should think about majoring in it when you go to college.” And my first thought was, “well, obviously he hasn’t graded my exam, because if he had, he’d know that I shouldn’t.” But he really affirmed my mathematical ability.
He was the first person who saw a talent and, talked about it, and said, not “if” you go to college, but, “when you go, you should be a math major.” I think part of what stood out to me was that he was this old white guy. And I was like, you know, why would you tell me that I’m good at math?
Mind you, he was probably in his early 50s. And the older I get, I’m like, he was a young man. He was young. He was spry. He was vibrant, you know, very vibrant. But yeah, he affirmed my mathematical ability. He got me to see myself as a mathematician in a way that I hadn’t before. When I applied to college, I still applied undecided. So even though Mr. Dorman had planted the seed, it didn’t really take root until I got to Spelman, until I actually met black women mathematicians that I thought, “Oh, this is actually something that I can do.”
Tom: These days, there is a lot of anxiety and stress associated with applying to college and where you’re going to go. Tell me a little bit about your kind of state of mind and what you were looking for in applying to colleges, with your interest in math and then, maybe your broader interests as well.
Talithia: I was really looking for a college environment that was going to be supportive. Both of my parents had gone to historically black colleges. So, I restricted my search to Spelman College, Hampton University, Howard University, and Clark Atlanta University, which are all historically black colleges.
Spelman is a historically black college for women, and that was where I ended up choosing. I think part of it was my high school experience. I felt like I learned a lot, but I was often the token minority. And, you know, in spaces where I just didn’t see a lot of other black students in AP classes. I didn’t have a lot of black students in them with me. And so, I wanted to see what that experience was like.
I remember visiting campuses, going to visit Spelman’s campus, and just seeing all these beautiful Black women and feeling at home. You know, it felt almost like I could exhale when I stepped on this campus because I didn’t stand out anymore. I just blended in, and it felt so comfortable. It was such a great environment to learn math in because I learned in this environment of other women who looked like me.
So if I failed an exam, it wasn’t because I was a woman. It wasn’t because I was black. It was because I obviously didn’t study hard enough because there were 10 black women that passed. I think it allowed me to learn math and really to just sort of fall in love with it in a supportive, encouraging environment. We all worked together. We all did homework together. Every professor wanted you to be successful. And so, math was mine for the taking in this environment.
Tom: Tell me more about your love of math. Are there certain questions that you were striving towards with math? Is it something aesthetic? What was it about mathematics really captured your heart?
Talithia: Initially, it was none of that. I saw that I had talent, and I was good at it. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t have like big mathematical ideas that I wanted to conquer as an undergraduate. When I started to think about graduate school, I started to sort of narrow down what my interests were and started a PhD program in mathematics. And then I took some statistics classes and really fell in love with statistics, data, and what we can learn from data. And so, I sort of grew in the field and then found my niche in statistics and data science and then ran off in that direction.
Tom: Yeah, you found your niche. I wonder too, on the other side of that coin, were there some big obstacles or certain moments where you hit up against a wall and thought, “Is this the right path for me? Am I cut out for this? Or do some of my interests lie elsewhere?” Tell me a little bit about some of the struggles and obstacles that stood in your way.
Talithia: Good question, Tom. There were several. I think Spelman built my confidence in a way that I felt like I could do anything. I knew if I worked hard enough, I could do it. I remember as a graduate student at Rice University, I went off to a stats PhD conference. This was probably my fourth year as a PhD student. And I’m at this conference and I’m meeting people. I go to the registration table, and the woman’s like, “Oh, welcome. Are you sure you’re at the right place? Because there’s another event down the hall that, maybe you’re here for.” And so that was the first moment where I was like, “Oh, well, why would you ask me that?” Like I can read, you know. I remember thinking, “Oh, that was weird.”
And so, several times throughout the conference. Other people tried to help me. They thought I was lost. I tried to walk into the exhibit hall. They were like, “Oh, we need to see your badge.” And I’m like, “People are just walking past me”. And so this idea that I was in the wrong place or, just didn’t belong in the community was sort of the default assumption until I proved otherwise.
I remember once I got asked to refill the coffee and I’m just thinking, “Oh, I have no idea where the coffee is, you know?” When I said, “Oh, I’m an attendee, I don’t work here. It was just like, ‘Oh, okay, well, who refills the coffee?’” There was no apology, “I’m so sorry. I mistook you for one of the servers.” And so, I think those are the moments that made me question, is this a place I want to be? Is this a community that I can belong to, or will I always be seen as an outsider, as someone who doesn’t belong or who isn’t a part of this group?
Tom: What would you say are some common misconceptions about mathematics that you’d like for people to know?
Talithia: I think people feel like either you’re good at it or not and that’s not true. I mean, it takes a lot of hard work. It takes perseverance, like anything, like learning how to play basketball. When you see guys in the NBA, the reason they’re there is that they have practiced and they’ve worked hard. They’ve failed, and I think math is the same. It takes a lot of practice. It takes hard work. You don’t just have innate talent. And then all of a sudden, you are a mathematician.
People feel like it’s only for certain types of people. It’s only for smart folks or if you weren’t born with that skill, that you can’t learn it. There’s only one way to solve a problem, especially for parents who learned math a certain way. Often we feel like, “well, that’s the way I learned it, and that must be the way to do it.” But math has so many various ways that we can attack a problem, so many ways that we can really be creative in solving it.
And I think the biggest misconception is that math is just irrelevant for everyday life. You will often hear people say, first, they hate math, and second, what am I ever going to use this for? What am I going to use calculus for?” You know, I’ve never used math and I’m a full-blown adult. And so, I think people struggle with the real-world application of mathematics and, how it applies to their, daily lives: how they use it in cooking, making a cake, or budgeting. There’s so many things that we use mathematics for that we often don’t even think about.
Tom: A number of scientists, Galileo is one I’m thinking of, but others as well, have kind of described the natural world as being sort of constituted or describable in the language of mathematics. Is language a good analogy to mathematics? Is there something substantive going on or is there just more like simile? What do you see in terms of the language? Of mathematics and, any connection might have to the human languages that we speak to each other.
Talithia: Yeah, you know, well, mathematics really at its heart is, also a form of communication, right? So, when we think about human language and it allows us to communicate in so many different ways, mathematics does that as well. It’s structured, we’ve got rules. There are grammatical rules to languages, there’s syntax.
Mathematics also has rules. We have symbols, we have notations, we have orders of operations, and so there are so many similarities. But, at the end of the day, language also has cultural variations, right? And so, you can go different places and folks speak French, and they speak Spanish. Mathematics is universal. I can talk to someone in any language using mathematics, and we can understand those shared numbers and systems.
If you think most recently about our COVID-19 pandemic and, at the root of it was communicating numbers and, data, right? It’s spreading at this rate, this many people have passed away from this disease, you know, this cure is only so effective. There’s power in understanding mathematics and understanding what people are communicating with you when they present numbers to you and being able to interpret and digest that information.
It’s a very powerful tool that can be used for good or not. Right. And so, I think it’s important that we help the public understand mathematical ideas. So that when they’re presented with information, when, they’re presented with, “Hey, you know, there’s a vaccine that we want you to take.” The public can really wrestle with that in a way that they feel satisfied with because they can understand the numbers that are being shown to them.
Tom: Tell me about some of the things that you’re passionate about outside of work.
Talithia: Oh, goodness. Well, family would probably be at the top of that list. I’ve got three sons that are, preteen and two teenagers. And so, this is a really fun and exciting time for our family and their lives. And it’s, great to sort of see how they’re growing and developing and just becoming young men. Their voices are changing. I mean, it’s, beautiful.
I’ve been really active in my church community as well. I enjoy singing in the choir. We have a choir that sings on Sunday morning and so that’s been just a great space because I’m not like the best singer, you know. They will never give me a solo. But it’s an environment where I can contribute and not have to be good. I can make a joyful noise and it doesn’t have to be perfect. And it’s a space that I get to exist in and just be one of many.
I’m also really enjoying doing a lot of public outreach and engaging the public in math and science and getting young people excited about STEM and seeing themselves as STEM professionals. And so that’s really been where a lot of my labor and reward has recently been: how do we help this next generation see themselves as mathematicians, get excited about data science or statistics or engineering or whatever, and not start to pull away from the sciences? That’s really been a huge passion for mee, especially for women and for people of color, to make sure that we’re represented in these areas.
Tom: You’ve had an opportunity to host some episodes of NOVA on PBS. I remember something from my earliest days growing up watching that show and stimulating my curiosity about science. How did this relationship with NOVA come about?
Talithia: Yeah, well, I have the receipts of the emails to prove it, Tom. So, they reached out shortly after the TED talk came out. This may have been 2015 and, they said, “Hey, it’s Talithia. We saw your TED Talk. And we think we have this idea for a show that we’d love for you to host, called NOVA Wonders.” And I initially, I think, I thought it was spam.
Tom: Ha ha ha ha.
Talithia: And so, I reached out and, six episodes later we had co-hosted this series on some of the biggest questions in science. And the TED talk was really what began that relationship. Since then, I’ve done some narration for several NOVA shows and have I hosted Zero to Infinity and have been on Prediction by the Numbers.
It’s been a fruitful partnership with them and it’s been great to highlight the diversity of scientists and mathematicians and engineers and bring some of those voices to the table. Often the folks who got highlighted, when we were growing up in the 80s and 90s were mostly older white men at Ivy League institutions. And so, the face of science was very different and is very different than the face that I think they want to promote. I think PBS is conscious of the child demographic that’s watching their shows and making sure that they see themselves represented, at all levels and, definitely represented on NOVA and PBS as well.
Tom: Yeah, I remember growing up, my mom gave me a book about women in mathematics. She was a mathematics major at the University of Missouri and graduated in 1972. I’m sure she had very few female counterparts. You wrote a book, as well, kind of exploring these topics. It wasn’t the one that I read because I was written when you and I were both very young. But can you maybe tell our listeners a little bit about kind of the journey of the study you did, and maybe highlight a couple of people?
Talithia: Yeah, so I wrote the book Power in Numbers: The Rebel Women of Mathematics, and I wanted to highlight the journey of women past, present, and up-and-coming who were in the mathematical sciences. Their story, you know, where they were from, what they enjoy doing, what brought them into mathematics, what were some of the struggles that they faced.
In the book I featured the first woman to get a PhD in mathematics and some of the struggles that she went through at Columbia University with petitioning to get accepted into the program when they didn’t accept women. And being accepted but having to only take classes by herself because they wouldn’t let her take classes with the men because she’d be a distraction. And having to petition to get approval for her Ph.D. after she defended because the board said, “Well, we don’t want to be the first institution to give a woman a Ph.D. in math.”
I highlighted Eugenia Chang, one of the more up-and-coming mathematicians, and being an Asian American woman in this mathematical space and her talking about belonging and broadening the field for other mathematicians.
But it’s also like a full-color coffee table book, you’re not going to look through and see, lots of boring equations, not that equations are boring, but it’s very picturesque. It highlights not just the beauty of these women, but the boldness of them going into the field where like your mother, they weren’t always supported or encouraged.
Tom: I, a few years ago, read Hidden Figures. Of course, it absolutely blew me away: absolute powerhouse mathematicians that were just invisible. I’m trained as a historian of science, so I really care about how stories are told. These women were absolutely instrumental and I imagine with your book you brought some women to light that had been, for far too long overlooked with their achievements as well.
Talithia: Right, and I think it has a way of helping people feel seen in areas, you know. When we wonder why, little black boys are excited about football and basketball is because you see these images of people who look like you and who are successful. And you spend a lot of time doing this thing that you see yourself in. And I think highlighting hidden figures in my book, highlighting these women is really so that young girls can see themselves in it, they don’t have to be a freshman at Spelman to think, oh my goodness, I can be a mathematician.
Tom: Yeah. Just modeling behaviors. As much as we like to think that we think for ourselves and all of our decisions are our own, as a parent of small children, I see absolutely we are very open to suggestion and that’s often, a really great way to learn skills quickly. It gives you a sight, much further down the road than you’ve been, and you can see a path forward.
Tom: Speaking of paths, I actually want to look backward back into the history of science and ask you a little bit about this guy named Isaac Newton. I think often described as perhaps the greatest mathematician of all time. I don’t want to go into rankings here, but he’s up there.
Tom: He is known for being immensely talented and utilizing math to help us better understand the physical universe. He’s also a man of tremendous faith. Tell me a little bit about, the practice of mathematics, in the sense that, one is exploring space that isn’t necessarily visible, and the sort of practice, faith, belief in God who also is not invisible. Do you see some parallels between mathematics and, this striving towards God?
Talithia: God is a mathematician, to the surprise of some of my religious friends and also my mathematical friends. Both mathematics and religion deal with this, idea of truth, right? And this yearning to understand truth. Whether through math, that’s by some, rigorous proof or logical reasoning. Through religion that might be through scripture or spiritual experiences or theology, meaning and purpose. Often faith gives us meaning and purpose.
But with mathematics, we also are sort of motivated by finding meaning in math and purpose in the mathematics that we do. I think both share a love of order and harmony and just how we see patterns in the universe and how we want to pull out those patterns that we see in mathematics.
Maybe Fibonacci numbers would be a beautiful example of that. And then there’s just sort of a general, awe and, wonder.
I think part of my love for math and statistics was, seeing the beauty and the complexity of it and the wonder of it and knowing that it’s so much bigger than me. The deeper I got into math and stats, the more I realized there’s so much I don’t understand. At no point do I completely feel like an expert in this field. And I think the same is true with faith and spirituality. The deeper you get, you realize that there’s so much that you don’t know, or understand.
Tom: Yeah. I was thinking back about your show Zero to Infinity, and thinking about infinity and immensity, and there’s different sizes of infinity.
Tom: It is a bit mind-blowing, and I think, just imagining that, the reality is so big and complex that all these infinities can fit inside of it, and so much more. If our conception of God isn’t at least that big, then we, have a very small God in mind.
Talithia: That’s right. That’s right.
Tom: Looking back on, you know, that encouragement you got from that high school teacher of the year, the young, sprightly 50-something, how has that experience and, your experience and developing in the mathematical space, how has that influenced the way that you interact with your college students?
Talithia: Well, so, what I didn’t tell you about Mr. Dorman, is he pulled me to the side that day. He did that to every student. You know, the next day he’d be like, “Hey, Tom, let me see you after class. Oh, Samantha, you after class.” We didn’t know. I think we found out at our tenure reunion, like, wait, he called, he called you.
It’s, it wasn’t just AP calculus. It was his Algebra I class that was full of seniors, you know? And so he didn’t limit his praise to, students who he thought had
“mathematical ability” because he felt like every student had mathematical ability. And if you affirm it, they will see themselves differently and they will take your affirmation and run with it.
And so, I often do that with my students: “Hey, I loved having you this semester. I’d love to see you take part two in the spring. I’d love to see you in my, advanced course.” And students often sign up for it because that affirmation, because me seeing them, believing in them, and pouring into them makes them say, “Oh, well, if you think I can do this, then maybe I can.”
I don’t limit that praise. I think part of that is what invites students into the discipline, right? When, especially as math professors any way that we can broaden participation of mathematics by encouraging everybody to see themselves as a mathematician, I think, benefits our field.
And every person that does math doesn’t have to get a PhD and become a math teacher. And so, I think we also need to envision how people at all levels can use mathematics, no matter what their profession ends up being.
Tom: You know, your teacher reminds me of the parable of the sower, where you cast those seeds far and wide where they’re going to take root. If you cast far enough, or long enough, you’re going to get some beautiful bounty from it. So, that can be learning at its best. So yeah. It’s a good one.
We’re looking at back to high school. I wondered if Talithia, where you find yourself in life now, where to, get in a time machine and, encounter yourself as a high school Talithia? Would she have certain questions for you? What would her interest be when, she meets a sprightly, woman with teenage sons?
Talithia: Oh, goodness. I think some of those questions would probably have to do with, “Am I enough? In these different spaces, is what I bring going to be sufficient?” You know, this, idea of, imposter syndrome and, being in spaces where you aren’t always represented, can you be successful?
Will you find support easily in those spaces? And so I usually, when I speak to, young high school girls today, we’ll talk about the challenges that I face navigating and getting to this point. Because when they meet me and they’re like, “Oh my gosh, you do this thing. You’ve been on TV. You’ve got this TED talk.” And I’m like, “Oh my goodness. But I was where you are. I was in your seat, not so long ago.”
This wasn’t a path that I thought about. I wasn’t a high school student thinking one day I’m going to be on NOVA. That wasn’t even a dream or a goal that I had at that stage. I was thinking, “How do I get into a good school? How do I go? Well, how do I get money to help support me?”
Even when I was debating going to graduate school, my thought was, should I go or should I just get a job? I didn’t sort of see all of this as a possibility. And so for me, I want my life to be seen as one example of the possibility, that there’s no difference between where I am right now and where you are. And if you want to be here, you can totally get here. There’s nothing magic about it. And I’m happy to mentor you to get into this space if this is where you want to be. And so I think that’s probably what I’d tell Talithia Jr. if I, ran into her.
Tom: Awesome. When we read the headlines these days, we see a lot of negativity and a lot of frustration. But I wonder, what are the things that make you hopeful about the future? Where you wake up in the morning and think, “I am just so glad to be alive and I have certain expectations of having a future that we can be excited about.”
Talithia: Yeah. I mean, I think I wake up with the thought that most people are doing the best they can at all times.
And I think belief in, humanity that most of us are trying hard to bring our best selves to the table is part of what gives me hope. For me, having faith in a higher being, having faith in God, and knowing that I have a purpose that extends beyond the things that I do also helps give me perspective.
I think that really colors my outlook on life. I’m also aware of the fact that I live in the United States and I’m privileged in so many ways. And so it’s, hard to complain about first-world problems when there are egregious acts that are happening to people, all over the world and in our country as well. And so, I try to maintain just a thankful and grateful attitude because I realized that I’ve been blessed and, to whom much is given, much is required.
Tom: Well, I see our time is wrapping up here. Really fun and great to talk to you today. It’s been a little while since we’ve seen each other. I don’t even want to count when that was. But I hope we’ll see each other again soon. Maybe I’ll see you in California again.
Talithia: Yes, Tom. Thank you so much for having me.