Dr. Talithia Williams’ Road to STEM Stardom
Dr. Talithia Williams, co-host of PBS’ NOVA
Wonders, gives her keynote speech to the UW-
Madison Diversity Forum on November 1st in
Union South’s Varsity Room.
we began to talking about the possibility of the show Prediction by the Numbers. We had a few in-person meetings and then after those meetings, they said, ‘We
have another idea for a six-part series and we think you would make a good host. Can you fly out to Boston and we can tape a pilot episode?’ They still had to do
some fundraising for this series. I agreed and we did a pilot episode that went really well. I think they showed that to some foundations. They were able to raise over
$3 million to support producing the series. It was myself along with Rana el Kaliouby and Andre Fenton who were the co-hosts of that series. We taped for 1-2 years.
It was a long process, flying out to Boston to do tapings in the studio and doing a lot voice overs. We also did the Prediction by the Numbers episode and so I
appeared in that as one of their statisticians, doing a project with the crowd. It was a great show to be a part of. It was a great way to engage the public to really
showcase the work of diverse scientists in our country.”
Indeed, Williams enjoys engaging people about statistics instead of talking to them about statistics until their eyes start glazing over a few minutes into the talk.
“I really enjoy a more interactive dialogue with an audience,” Williams said. “I really like to show people the data and give them time to wrestle with it during the
talk as opposed to just presenting data to you and you just take it in. It does take more time to engage the audience in that way, to give them time to think and reflect,
to give them time to talk to each other and then share out what they have seen. But I find that people come away from those talks remembering the data and those
interactions months later. And so, for me, it’s great to be able to facilitate that type of understanding among a general audience and really push them to look at the
data and determine what that means, not just for society, but also how does it translate back into their university environment.”
Williams also enjoys getting some hands-on work done with young women in her community.
“I do a conference every year called Sacred Sisters,” Williams said. “It’s a math and science and engineering and technology conference. That’s for local middle
and high school girls. That’s been my main engagement. We started reaching out to include boys as well. I do a lot of mentoring of our students on campus to
shepherd them through this experience, especially women and students of color, first generation students for whom this is all new to them. A lot of my work has
been in really thinking about how to broaden participation of women and underrepresented groups in STEM in general and in math and statistics in particular.”
While math and statistics have a reputation for being difficult with women and people of color often self-selecting out of the field, especially if there is no support
within the institution to encourage them to continue, Williams feels that these mental barriers can be overcome in the same way that youth overcome other
impediments in their way to doing the most basic of tasks in life.
“We have to work at it and push ourselves so that we will be successful in it,” Williams said. “I often like to compare it to a baby who is learning how to walk. If you
think about it, it takes so much effort and practice and you fall so many times before you learn to walk. And at no point does anyone give up on you. It’s rare that you
see a 30-50-year-old person crawling because we expect that you are going to learn to walk. We know it’s hard, but we believe you can do it and we’re going to
push you until you do it. And even when you take a step and you tumble, we’re going to clap and take pictures and smile and push you back up again and you’re
going to take another step and you’re going to fall and you’re going to cry. When you think about that, here we are getting the body to balance on two feet when all you
know is all fours. It’s difficult.
“In the same way, people think mathematics is so hard, there is no way they can do it. I like to encourage them to think of it as learning to walk. You engage it. You’
re going to fall down. It’s okay. You get up again and you try it again. You take two steps and you’re going to fall. Great, try it again. That type of attitude changes your
mindset around what you can and you can’t do. It’s not that I can’t do mathematics. It’s, ‘Oh, I can’t do mathematics yet.’ Sure a two-month-old can’t walk yet. But we
never think that two-month-old is never going to walk. Those legs just aren’t built for walking. It doesn’t matter what the legs look like. You’re going to walk. They
are going to be fine. They were made for walking. I think we have a brain that is made to and is able to do mathematics. We have to change our mindset around our
ability to do it. And just like walking, mathematics will take you places you never thought you would go before.”
Part 2 of 2
By Jonathan Gramling
I have to admit it. When the term mathematician comes up, the image of an older Euro-American man in a white
lab coat hunched over some papers at a desk with a large blackboard filled with an endless formula of some
kind comes to mind. Dr. Talithia Williams, a mathematician and statistician at Harvey Mudd College, definitely
doesn’t fit that mode.
Williams, a co-host of PBS’ NOVA Wonders, author of Power in Numbers: The Rebel Women of Mathematics and
the keynote speaker at UW-Madison’s Diversity Forum, is a young, engaging and very talented African American
woman who has a special touch for making mathematics and statistics understandable and interesting to young
and old alike. It was Williams’ engaging presentation style that caught the eye of producers at PBS, which
produces NOVA, the primetime science series.
“Folks at NOVA came across my TED talk a few years back,” Williams said. “They reached out via email and
While Williams has co-hosted a national television show and appeared on a successful
TED Talk, she feels that she is still needed at Harvey Mudd College.
“I think I am open to what happens next,” Williams said. “Harvey Mudd has been a
wonderful fit for me. I think I’ve been able to really contribute to the vibrancy of the
community. Will I be here 30 years from now, I can’t say that necessarily. I think there is
work still to be done here and so I am excited to be a part of this work.”
Wherever she may be, the next generation of woman and mathematicians of color will
be there needing to hear the message over and over again that they can do it too.