If you caught the PBS series “Nova Wonders” over the spring and summer, odds are you saw statistics alumna Talithia Williams ’08, who earned her Ph.D. in statistics at Rice.
Williams is the host of the series that explores some of the biggest questions in science, such as “What’s the universe made of?”, “Can we build a brain?”, “What’s living in us?” and “What are animals saying?”
Being on TV was never part the Harvey Mudd College math professor and associate dean’s plans.
“They reached out to me,” she said about the production crew. “They’d seen a TED Talk of mine [called “Own Your Body’s Data”] and they liked how it made statistics and data approachable. They sent a producer out to California to have breakfast with me, and the concept of the show sounded interesting.”
That was two-and-a-half years ago, and Williams said the journey from concept to show was an education in how television works. For two years, between 2015 and 2017, Williams would fly out of Los Angeles once a month after her Thursday class, and spend four days taping segments with WGBH in Boston. She did further voiceover work in L.A. It was a grueling schedule, she said, although she was amazed at the end of it to find out how many airline miles she’d racked up.
“The whole thing felt surreal until it actually came out,” she said of the experience. “Because I was only working on my part of it. We’d do segments in a warehouse that looked kind of bare and unsophisticated, but then I saw the show and what they could do with the green screen behind me. It was amazing to watch it all come together.”
For Williams, it also hit a certain sweet spot of hers: helping people understand how STEM works in their everyday lives. As a professor, she wants to see her students not only get excited about math and data science, but have a concrete conception of why those numbers matter in everything from predicting health outcomes to saving the environment. Working on “NOVA Wonders” gave her the opportunity to present that platform on a larger stage.
“The show allowed me to use a different part of my brain,” she said. “It was all about how we communicate science in a way that gets people excited about it. And the response was enthusiastic. Right now, we’re working on getting funding for more episodes. But, we might do something else in between, with me as a host.”
Williams is taking her newfound role on television in stride. She said she’s heard parents and prospective students pass her as they’re touring campus and whispering that “I think she’s the one we saw on NOVA,” and that her three boys, ages six, eight and 10, have started saying “Our mommy’s famous.”
“That’s a little weird,” she laughed. “But, you know, even though I didn’t plan on this at all, my experience brought me to this place.” She spent a year shadowing Freeman Hrabowski, the president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, part of an American Council in Education fellowship.
“That showed me that part of being a leader on campus was not only to know your subject, but to be able to talk about. You have to be able to share the big picture of the institution, and your passion for it. If it doesn’t sound like I believe in what I’m talking about, how can I expect others to get excited?
At Mudd, she’s examining the future of higher education, and what impact the college can have on the lives of its students.
“Being associate dean has made me clue in a little more to what’s happening in my students’ lives, not just what they are doing in my class. And I’m thinking big picture -- how can I be part of changing the culture to improve their experience. I’m really enjoying having those kinds of conversations.”