In conversation with Talitha Washington

Meet Talitha Washington, an activist, mathematician, and professor


Talitha Washington. Image reproduced with her permission.

This post is part of black mathematician month.

Talitha Washington is a professor of mathematics at Howard University who is passionate about improving ethnic minority access to STEM subjects in the USA. Talitha, whose name comes from the Biblical verse “Talitha cumi”, literally meaning “little girl, get up!”, introduces herself as an activist, a mathematician, and a professor.

Talitha, the activist

Talitha Washington’s work on Elbert Frank Cox, the first black person in the world to earn a PhD in mathematics, has been shared on radio and television stations, as well as in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society. They both grew up in Evansville, Indiana and both went on to teach at Howard University. Image reproduced with her permission.

The lack of diversity in sciences and mathematics is a sensitive topic, and how different generations interact with racism has drastically changed over the past few decades. “Typically, older generations, like our parents, used to say you should ‘act like a duck and shake off the water’, meaning if you encounter racially charged situations you just grit your teeth and persevere through it: you try not to let it affect you.” Talitha says that for people of her generation this was also the norm, even though it did not seem fair. However, for the younger generations, the situation is a little different. They have grown up with a black president in the United States and the promise that if you work hard you will be rewarded, independent of the colour of your skin. So if they “encounter racially charged situations they may or may not know what to do, or how to handle it. Instead they will say, ‘this is not for me — I am going somewhere else where I am already accepted, because this is not how it should be’. And we don’t want to lose the younger generations in STEM because of that.”

Talitha has been actively working towards a more diversified science community and, based on her experiences, believes that “there is frustration amongst people of colour in STEM because, when diversity does come up, it does not take race into account. People think that one technique will solve everything, and typically that one technique helps white women.” The frustration that arises is due to the fact that professional societies are trying to use a one-size-fits-all method to improve diversity. Even though we can see a clear improvement in gender equality, there are “people of colour working very hard to get that seat on the table to achieve any sort of equity that is on par with the nation’s population… but it is just not there.”

Talitha has been working to encourage people to take into account the differences between race and gender in STEM. “This is such a big problem that it needs to be discussed from all angles, not just the minorities because this is really an issue created by all. We all participate and hopefully, we can all participate to make it better.”

Talitha, the mathematician

Talitha Washington. Image reproduced with her permission.

“Getting into mathematics was not anything that I had thought of, but fortunately I had people around me that said ‘here do this’ and then I think I was naive enough, or maybe smart enough, to do what they told me. It has worked out to be a great career and a lot of fun,” she says. While attending Spelman college, Talitha was taught by Etta Falconer (a ‘maths force’) and Sylvia Bozemen. The two of them were “inspirational” and “pioneers in making pathways for women of colour”. After Spelman, she completed a PhD at the University of Connecticut and a postdoctoral position at Duke University.

Talitha’s research at Howard University now lies in dynamical systems applied to mathematical biology. She is also interested in non-standard finite-difference schemes, which involves tailor-made numerical methods for calculating solutions that preserve specific properties of the system under study.

Talitha has spent some time abroad doing mathematics and experienced first hand how things work outside the USA. “Here in the US, we are still trying to figure out how race and ethnicity will impact STEM, and what the different cultural barriers are. But with my experience living in Mexico and Costa Rica, I am more open to different cultural expectations, norms and understandings. I can go in and out of a situation and understand better where people are coming from and how they may see things completely different from me, just because of where they stand in the world.” She has also been involved with the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics & Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), where she graduated from both their Leadership and Advanced Leadership Institute. This is how she has continued her activity with the Hispanic and Latino community in STEM, which she says has really broadened her collegiate network. One of her goals is to go back to other parts of the Americas, like Mexico, and spend some time in a faculty position.

Talitha, the professor

Talitha works at Howard University, Washington DC, where she currently is an associate professor in the department of mathematics. DC is a highly diverse city, where less than 36% of the population identifies as non-Hispanic white. Talitha thinks that there are a lot of “pockets” of interesting STEM learning across the US, but they might not necessarily have expanded in the way they should have. As a professor with hundreds of students on her lists, but also as the mother of three teenagers, Talitha values the impact of when “the school provides a very good experience to get hands-on with science learning. For example, in academy schools, it is almost like a university structure with a project-based curriculum, meaning that the students learn by doing and collaborating.”

Talitha Washington. Image reproduced with her permission.

Talitha thinks that at later stages, minority students need more encouragement “because often the students may not see themselves reflected in society. ‘Maybe I can’t do that, but I can do this because this is what I have seen on TV, this is what I have been exposed to.’” For her college students, she says she has to “literally hold their necks down and say ‘you will do this’. You need to give your students specific tasks to do because you might have students that have never bought a plane ticket before, they have never taken public transportation, or they have never done what we might think are basic life things.” Talitha believes that maths education should go beyond just teaching mathematics, and instead make sure people know how to interact with the world and be maths professionals. Without the professional part, it is very hard to move forward. “We have to teach our students from a holistic approach, not just the subject but also meeting them as a person: what do they need in order to navigate different fields like economics, race or gender?”

There are certain stereotypes about what a mathematics professor looks like, and Talitha is keen on dispelling them. She talks about the need to “put mathematicians and scientists in the public eye, so they can see that we are people and we have real lives and we do real things.” This is exactly what happens at the national mathematics festival in DC, where this year Talitha gave a talk on the mathematics of the film Hidden Figures. When people comment on how Talitha might not meet these stereotypes, it goes without saying that it is frustrating. She believes it’s important to keep a good sense of humour, otherwise, such interactions can become depressing, and so she will sometimes respond by jokingly asking: “Have you never seen a mathematician this fine?”.

At other times, however, her response can be more forthright: “I remember being at a conference earlier this summer and somebody came up to me and said “Oh, you are a professor at Howard.” And I remember thinking, ‘why did he say it like that?’, so I went up to him the next day and said ‘I should be the expectation, not your exception.’”

Niki is a PhD student at UCL, working in analytic number theory.

Sean is a PhD student researching geophysical fluid dynamics at UCL. He studies coastal outflows, but so far has been unable to persuade the department to send him on a research trip to the beach.

Rafael Prieto Curiel is doing a PhD in mathematics and crime. He is interested in mathematical modelling of any social issues, such as road accidents, migration, crime, fear and gossip.

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