A woman of data, tenacity, and intellect, Talithia Williams’ achievements showcase the testament of a Black woman in science. Williams earned her bachelor’s degree in Mathematics from Spelman College, master’s degree in Mathematics from Howard University, and earned her Ph.D. in Statistics from Rice University. Her popular Ted Talk titled “Own Your Body’s Data,” explained the statistical importance of measuring health. Williams is now an Associate Dean for Research and Experiential Learning and Associate Professor of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California. She spoke to the Los Angeles Sentinel Newspaper about her role in the new PBS series NOVA Wonders. NOVA Wonders explores the depths of our universe with new age science.
LOS ANGELES SENTINEL NEWSPAPER: What was the moment you realized you wanted to explore a career using data?
TALITHIA WILLIAMS: I remember a professor showing the data between pregnant women who smoked and those that didn’t. We looked at how long the baby was in the womb and the weight of when the baby was born. I remember the professor telling me why every package of cigarettes has a warning label because of this research. That was the moment for me. I said wow! There is so much power in this data. It literally changed policies. That’s what really struck me.
LAS: What type of data should we be gathering for us to live a better life?
WILLIAMS: There’s so many products that will automatically collect data for us. In this day and age, we have no excuse to not know some basics. Examples include, the number of steps we take a day, our blood pressure, or our resting heart rate. There are many apps that help.
LAS: What was your favorite aspect of working with NOVA Wonders?
WILLIAMS: Overall knowing that young people and little girls that look like me will see the show. I remember growing up watching shows and really wanting to see people in science that looked like me. It makes a difference when we see ourselves reflected. We have been intentional on NOVA Wonders to showcase the diversity in science.
LAS: What has been the most difficult part of being a woman of color in a male dominated field?
WILLIAMS: It was not easy to stay on this path. I’ve seen instances of micro and macro aggressions. I recognize that there aren’t many Black women in mathematics and a lot of people see that too. One time at a conference, me and another mathematician, who was an older White male, walked to a table. This woman looks up at me and asked was I at the right conference. She looked as though I didn’t belong. It takes a lot of grit and tenacity to stick with an area that consistently pushes you out.
LAS: Where did you find the confidence to withstand the backlash?
WILLIAMS: For me, one reason that I have been successful is having a degree at Spelman College and being affirmed as a Black woman in that environment. I saw other Black women that had a Ph.D. I knew it was obtainable. I want to be the example for young girls of color to see someone that reflects them. It’s exposure, it’s encouragement, it’s your family and peers. It’s hard to be successful without encouragement. I want to help them see that they can have a career in science.
NOVA Wonders episodes will range from discovering the mysteries of the human body, to exploring extraterrestrial life. The series, produced by WGBH Boston, premiered on Wednesday April 25. For upcoming episodes, please check your local PBS listings.