This year’s Tanner Forum on Social Ethics featured highly accomplished professor and statistician, Dr. Talithia Williams.
The Tanner Forum is held every year to provide opportunities for students, staff, faculty and the community to come together and dig into critical issues regarding social ethics. Williams met with faculty and students Oct. 8 for a luncheon where she describes the road to where she is now.
“I didn’t come out of the womb doing mathematics,” she jokes.
Williams was inspired to pursue mathematics when her high school calculus teacher told her that she should think about it. Due to underrepresentation of minorities and women in STEM, it was something she had a hard time envisioning.
“Spellman College was the first time I saw African American women who were mathematicians. I had never seen that. If you were to google ‘mathematician’ you’d have to go back several pages before you even saw a black woman,” she remarks.
After getting a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, Williams went on to a Ph.D. program where she discovered her love for statistics. She then switched her focus from math to stats and got her doctorate.
Since then, she has worked for NASA in their jet propulsion lab, became the first African American female to receive tenure at Harvey Mudd College and is now a co-host of the PBS series, “NOVA Wonders.”
“One of the things that was really exciting working at PBS and NOVA was that they really wanted to highlight diversity. When I grew up, every scientist on NOVA was a white Nobel Prize-winning male, and it didn’t stop me from loving science, but I didn’t see myself in the scientists that were featured,” she says.
Along with NOVA, Williams makes a substantial effort to empower future generations in the world of STEM by hosting workshops at Harvey Mudd for under-represented girls with interests in the field.
At the evening keynote, Williams focused the conversation on the social consequences of our data-driven society. From data collection with website’s cookies to DNA testing companies collecting and profiting off of the DNA they get, she poses the question: How much data are people unknowingly giving away for free and who, then, has ownership of that data?
She reminded the audience to advocate for data transparency and to always read the fine print so users understand the rights they relinquish by clicking “Agree.”
Williams blended numbers and stats with personal stories of her own and others.
“I think stories are so critical … When I share my story with people, we’re able to connect on a human level … it’s not just numbers, I’m not just a number anymore,” she says.
With the progressive angle Williams brought to topics like data, gender equality in STEM and the future of science and mathematics, the audience was able to leave the event with a fresh perspective.
Photos by Steve Speckman