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On TV, at TED, or with NASA, Talithia Williams puts math to work

She’s the host of PBS’ “Nova Wonders” series. Her TED talk on heeding your body’s data has 1.6 million views. And she has had research appointments at NASA and the National Security Agency.

Mathematician Talithia Williams, PhD, will be Fielding’s 2019 convocation speaker on July 20 during Summer Session in Chicago, and those attending are in for a treat. Not only is Dr. Williams is known for demystifying statistics in amusing and insightful ways – she also shares Fielding’s passion for putting scholarship to use toward real-world problems.

“At a time when AI-created data is driving public policy decisions across the globe, Dr. Williams’ scholarship is at the forefront of using such data to advance positive social outcomes,” noted President Katrina Rogers, PhD. “We are honored to welcome Dr. Williams to the Fielding community, where our students and faculty are also committed to knowledge applied to practice. In recognition of her many achievements, the Board of Trustees is conferring an honorary degree of Human Letters on Dr. Williams.”

An associate professor and dean at Harvey Mudd College, Williams takes sophisticated numerical concepts and makes them understandable and relatable to everyone, using statistics as a way of seeing the world in a new light. Her popular 2014 TEDx talk “Own Your Body’s Data” makes a case should all be measuring simple data about our bodies — because it can reveal more than even our doctors may know.

Her new book Power in Numbers: The Rebel Women of Mathematics tells the stories of more than 30 women — from rocket scientists and code breakers to computer programmers and data scientists — who fought through obstacles and shattered stereotypes to help develop the field of mathematics over the last two millennia.

Like Fielding’s scholar-practitioners, Dr. Williams models for her students how to apply statistical knowledge to addressing injustices outside of the classroom.

“There’s so much data you can look at that will reveal inequities,” she says. “Arrest data, for example. As a statistician, I’m able to pull unbiased data and patterns on racial profiling. You can look at the frequency with which African American or Hispanic men are profiled and see that it’s very disproportionate in certain areas.

“As a statistician thinking about social justice, I’m always thinking about how I can use data to tell that story.”

She has put her good work to use not only in the U.S. but globally. She partnered with the World Health Organization to develop a model used to predict where eye doctors would be needed most to perform cataract surgery in African countries.

Dr. Williams, whose friend Zarat Boyd, PhD, is a Fielding alum, and who was an American Council on Education fellow with Fielding Provost Monique L. Snowden, PhD, Dr. Williams received her B.S. in mathematics from Spelman College, master’s degrees in mathematics from Howard University and statistics from Rice University, and a PhD in statistics from Rice University.

Her message to Fielding’s new graduates? “You just achieved this amazing accomplishment. What are you gonna do with it?” she says. “It’s about encouraging them to keep taking those bold risks and thinking about the types of social impacts they can have – because I know Fielding is all about social justice.”