Talithia WilliamsNobel Conference 57

Talithia Williams

Statistician Talithia Williams works as an interpreter. But instead of translating Spanish to Urdu, she takes difficult and arcane concepts in mathematics and statistics, making them understandable, interesting and relevant to the rest of us. Apropos the topic of this year’s conference, her popular TED talk, “Own Your Body’s Data,” is an argument for the importance of “small data.” In it, she tells her audience that each of us should be using the tools of personal data collection--from heart rate monitors to step counters--to take charge of our own health. Her work on the PBS series “Nova Wonders” focuses on introducing future scientists and engineers to some of the most pressing scientific questions of our time. Rather than presenting answers, the series is “really opening the door and arousing curiosity and getting the public excited about the possibility of even trying to contribute to and solve some of these big ideas and big questions,” notes Williams. Two episodes featuring topics related to Big Data: “Secrets in our DNA” and “Prediction by the Numbers”

In addition to her work to make mathematics and statistics understandable to the everyday person, Williams develops statistical models that emphasize the spatial and temporal structure of data, and applies them to problems in the environment, She has partnered with the World Health Organization in developing a model used to predict the cataract surgical rate for countries in Africa.

Williams holds a PhD in statistics from Rice University. Currently a professor of mathematics and statistics at Harvey Mudd, she has held positions at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the NSA and NASA. In 2015, she won the Mathematical Association of America’s Henry L. Alder Award for Distinguished Teaching. Williams was honored by the Association for Women in Mathematics and the Mathematical Association of America as the Falconer Lecturer in 2017, and was recognized by Mathematically Gifted & Black as a Black History Month 2017 Honoree. She is the author of Power in Numbers: The Rebel Women in Mathematics.