UC welcomes Einstein public lecture series speaker Nathaniel Whitaker

Mathematics leader returns to share scholarship, journey beyond segregation

“From Segregation to Research Mathematician” is the title of this year’s Einstein Public Lecture in Mathematics, presented in conjunction with the American Mathematical Society’s Spring Sectional Meeting. The meeting will be held at the University of Cincinnati on April 15-16, and is expected to draw hundreds of mathematical scholars and the public from around the region to UC’s Uptown campus.

The lecture will be presented by research mathematician Nathaniel Whitaker, interim dean of the University of Massachusetts Amherst College of Natural Sciences. Whitaker has roots in UC’s College of Arts and Sciences, from which he earned his master’s degree in mathematics in the 1980s.

University of Massachusetts Amherst, will deliver the Einstein Public Lecture in Mathematics at UC.

University of Massachusetts Amherst, will deliver the Einstein Public Lecture in Mathematics at UC.

“I accepted the invitation because UC was essential to my success,” Whitaker says. “When I applied to grad school, at that time, only UC accepted me with financial support. If they had not accepted me, my journey would have been very different. They welcomed me.”

Professor Whitaker’s journey began in the segregated south, where his grandparents and parents were sharecroppers. His family later moved to Virginia, where he attended segregated schools in proximity to the Black engineers and NASA computers Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson, whose stories were brought to life in the book “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women and Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race,” which was later made into an award-winning film.

Similarly, Whitaker’s story is woven into that historical period. “I grew up in a Black community that had a lot of pride,” he says. “We knew that we were discriminated against, but still knew that we had great people amongst us that could do well with opportunities.

“My father worked from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. in one shipyard, 4 p.m. to 12 a.m. at another, and then delivered flowers for a florist on weekends,” Whitaker says. “It took me awhile to appreciate that, and when I did, that is when I began to soar.”

I accepted the invitation because UC was essential to my success. They welcomed me.

Professor Nathaniel Whitaker University of Massachusetts Amherst

Today, Whitaker’s research focuses on problems in mathematical biology, which seeks to explore modeling of biological processes. Specifically, his research analyzes the growth of tumors through models which simulate the conditions necessary for them to grow. Whitaker also works in fluid and statistical mechanics.

It was important to invite Whitaker back to UC to share his story, says Michael Goldberg, head of the department of mathematical sciences.

“He is a successful graduate from our department with a compelling story to tell, and we wanted to highlight his accomplishments,” Goldberg says. “I hope everyone will find something revealing or relatable in the journey of Dr. Whitaker’s scientific career. It’s a rare opportunity to connect with such a large professional and public audience.”

Whitaker concurs, saying his lecture will weave his mathematical research with his scholarly path, with an emphasis on the importance of community and belonging to success.

“I am hoping to inspire Black mathematicians, but also those who are not Black, to realize that others feel like they do not belong to the community and they can reach out to them,” he says. “Everyone needs support for their success. At all parts of my journey, I had support.”

The Einstein Public Lecture in Mathematics is free and open to the public. It will be presented on Saturday, April 15 from 5 p.m. to 6:05 p.m. in Tangeman University Center, 2600 Clifton Ave., Room 465 (Great Hall).

Featured image at top: Equations on a blackboard. Credit/Thomas T from Unsplash.

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