SIAM News Blog

Honoring Black Mathematicians in Our Community

Last edited: February 10, 2023

In honor of Black History Month, SIAM has spotlighted influential Black mathematicians from our community. We encourage you to take a moment to read through these spotlights and a list of resources and networks for Black mathematicians, and learn more about our equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives. 

Illya Hicks

Illya Hicks
Dr. Illya Hicks was born and raised in Waco, Texas. His father, a self-employed mechanic, and mother, a factory worker, instilled in him the values of hard work and perseverance. Dr. Hicks received a football scholarship from Texas State University in 1995, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. He went on to receive a master’s degree and Ph.D. in computational and applied mathematics from Rice University in 2000, under the advisory of Bill Cook. Following that, he served as a faculty member in the industrial and systems engineering department at Texas A&M University from 2000 to 2006. Dr. Hicks is currently the department chair and a professor in the computational applied mathematics and operations research department at Rice University.

Dr. Hicks’ research interests are combinatorial optimization, graph theory, and integer programming with applications in big data, machine learning, imaging, cancer treatment, neuroscience, social networks, social good, and logistics. He is interested in all problems related to graphs or networks and is currently working on projects related to political redistricting, machine learning, path planning for robotics, and the resilience and equity of infrastructure networks – i.e., power, transportation, and the economy. He is also passionate about increasing the engagement of underrepresented minority groups with the mathematical sciences.

Dr. Hicks has been a member of SIAM since he was a graduate student in 1999. As a grad student, he attended the SIAM Annual Meeting in 2004 and discovered an abundance of research from the conference. He was also an early participant in Diversity Day, which was the precursor to SIAM’s Workshop Celebrating Diversity that is held at Annual Meeting. Dr. Hicks attributes both of those experiences as contributing factors to his pursuit of a career in academia. He has continued to be active within the SIAM community as a Diversity Advisory Committee member (2013-2015), a co-organizer of professional development events at SIAM Annual Meetings, a member of the 2023 SIAM Activity Group on Optimization Best Paper Prize Committee, and member of SIAM Activity Groups on Applied and Computational Discrete Algorithms, Optimization, and Discrete Mathematics

In terms of advice for early career professionals, Dr. Hicks tries to live by a few mantras: Do not make excuses, make adjustments; Accept responsibility and learn from mistakes; And embrace discomfort. “Enjoy each day instead of getting caught in what needs to get done. Life is a marathon and not a sprint!” he said.

Carla Cotwright-Williams

Carla Cotwright-Williams
Since Dr. Carla Cotwright-Williams earned her Ph.D. in mathematics in 2006 from the University of Mississippi, she has pursued public service in academia and has over 10 years of experience in research and teaching. A large portion of her career has been spent in government IT and data science research positions, including NASA Ames Research Center and the U.S. Navy. During her time on Capitol Hill, Dr. Cotwright-Williams worked as a staffer on the majority staff of the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. In addition to covering many policy areas, she also worked on the congressional hearing examining emergency preparedness surrounding the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings. Dr. Cotwright-Williams currently serves as a Technical Director within the Department of Defense (DoD), where she was recently the first Chief of Data Science and Artificial Intelligence at the DoD’s Center of Excellence Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC).

In her current role, Dr. Cotwright-Williams leverages innovative thinking and technology to improve systems and create efficient processes. As the first Chief of Data Science and Artificial Intelligence for the JAIC, she helped lay the groundwork for the future of JAIC’s successor – the new DoD’s Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Office (CDAO). The CDAO is responsible for accelerating the DoD’s adoption of data, analytics, and AI to generate decision advantages from the boardroom to the battlefield. Previously, she served as a Hardy-Apfel Information Technology Fellow at the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) headquarters in Baltimore, MD. She worked on a variety of high-profile agency IT projects, including creating fraud analytics in the Office of Anti-Fraud Programs and the launch of the SSA’s Enterprise Data Warehouse – a cloud infrastructure that aims to improve accessibility to its data. 

Dr. Cotwright-Williams has been an active member of SIAM for several years, attending SIAM conferences and moderating panels, and most recently, becoming a member of SIAM’s Diversity Advisory Committee. She considers her SIAM membership a great networking opportunity, in which she’s collaborated with numerous people and introduced others to potential career connections using SIAM’s network. 

Dr. Cotwright-Williams encourages early career professionals to pursue the career path that they desire without regard for how long it may take, as perseverance will help one achieve their goals. She also advises those branching out from academia to market their skill set as more than a diploma, and especially any problem-solving skills. “Rebrand yourself,” she said. “Making big moves may mean presenting yourself in a different light.”

Nathaniel Whitaker

Nathaniel Whitaker
Dr. Nathaniel Whitaker was born in North Carolina and grew up in Newport News, Virginia. He attended Hampton Institute and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1974. Afterwards, he worked for the U.S. Army doing cost-benefit studies for five years. Dr. Whitaker then earned his master’s in mathematics from the University of Cincinnati in 1981, and a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1987. That same year, he joined the University of Massachusetts Amherst as an assistant professor in the department of mathematics and statistics, where he became department head from 2018-2022. He has been the Interim Dean of the College of Natural Sciences since July 2022.

Dr. Whitaker is an applied mathematician who uses computational methods to address real-world problems. His research began in fluid mechanics with his thesis advisor Alexandre Chorin at UC Berkeley. Initially, he studied flow through porous but eventually developed a numerical method for evolving the interface in a Hele-Shaw cell. His work in fluid mechanics continued with his study of a statistical mechanics formulation for steady solutions to the Euler equations, the Navier-Stokes equations with zero viscosity. Alongside Bruce Turkington, Dr. Whitaker developed a method to solve a maximum entropy problem with constraints to find the most probable solution. They were able to prove global convergence of this method. 

Since then, Dr. Whitaker has developed and studied models of the nephron (functional unit of the kidney) and tumor angiogenesis (the growth of blood vessels towards a cancerous tumor) with another colleague, Panos Kevrekidis. The pair have studied and solved equations describing Bose-Einstein condensates, neuroscience, meta-materials, and problems in mathematical physics using numerical methods. Recently, Dr. Whitaker has become interested in tracking bifurcations associated with these equations. 

Dr. Whitaker has been a SIAM member for 30 years and has participated in several conferences that have facilitated his collaboration with fellow researchers and his knowledge of new mathematical applications. Conversations with other mathematicians at SIAM Conferences have led to his development of an extremely accurate method for modeling the interface in a Hele-Shaw cell and have generally contributed to several long-term, fruitful, and productive collaborations. Currently, he is a member of SIAM’s Committee on Committees and Appointments, which has afforded him the opportunity to uplift women and underrepresented mathematicians to serve on SIAM committees. 

To any professionals pursuing a career in the mathematical sciences, Dr. Whitaker wishes to emphasize the importance of being part of a welcoming community. “Attend SIAM Conferences and other professional meetings,” he said. “They provide opportunities to network and become part of communities that can be beneficial to your degree and career."

Resources and Networks for Black Mathematicians

The Black community continues to be underrepresented in the STEM workforce. Below are resources and networks that may be of interest to Black mathematicians of all ages. 

SIAM’s Commitment to Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

As a professional society, SIAM is committed to empowering equitable, diverse, and inclusive participation in all aspects of our community. SIAM will provide a climate that encourages the open expression and exchange of ideas, that is free from all forms of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation, and that is welcoming and comfortable to all members and to those who participate in its activities.

In pursuit of this commitment, SIAM is dedicated to the philosophy of equality of opportunity and treatment for all participants regardless of gender, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, race, color, national or ethnic origin, religion or religious belief, age, marital status, disabilities, veteran status, and field of expertise.

Relevant SIAM Programs

MGB-SIAM Early Career Fellowship 

In 2021, SIAM launched the MGB-SIAM Early Career Fellowship, which recognizes the achievements of early career applied mathematicians – particularly those belonging to racial and ethnic groups historically excluded from the mathematical sciences in the United States — and provides support for professional activities and career development. The fellowship reflects a joint commitment by Mathematically Gifted & Black (MGB) and SIAM to promote long-term engagement of fellows within SIAM and continued success within the wider applied mathematics and computational sciences community. Learn more about the 2023 Class of MGB-SIAM Early Career Fellows!

SIAM-NAM Reciprocal Membership

In 2021, we announced a new collaboration between SIAM and the National Association of Mathematicians (NAM), a non-profit professional organization dedicated to promoting excellence in the mathematical sciences and the mathematical development of all underrepresented minorities. SIAM and NAM now have a reciprocal membership agreement, which means individuals who belong to NAM get 30% off SIAM membership, and vice versa. With our complimentary missions, this partnership will help increase the number of people, especially underrepresented minorities, taking part in the activities of both SIAM and NAM – a priority on which our two societies are very well aligned. Learn more about the reciprocal membership here. 

SIAM-Simons Undergraduate Summer Research Program

Through the support of the Simons Foundation, SIAM has established a new applied mathematics and computational science program that will provide research, networking, and mentorship opportunities to U.S. students from underrepresented groups. Each year, this program will establish five sites across the United States for one faculty mentor and two students to work together for six weeks. Students will learn how to conduct scientific research, effectively communicate mathematics and computational science principles, and will gain an improved understanding of how they can pursue a career in applied mathematics and computational science. Students and mentors from the five sites will come together via video conference to present their work, participate in professional development activities, and engage in community-building initiatives to bring all participants together and foster a strong sense of belonging. Learn more about the program in this recent SIAM News article.

Workshop Celebrating Diversity at SIAM Annual Meetings

This longstanding yearly event, held during SIAM Annual Meeting and funded by the National Science Foundation, provides a chance for students to listen to technical talks presented by underrepresented minority graduate students. The workshop is intended to accomplish several goals: 

  • To send a clear, explicit message of enthusiastic welcome and support from SIAM to members of underrepresented groups. The workshop is deliberately held as part of a regularly scheduled SIAM Conference so that the participants can combine the experiences of attending a scientific meeting and a special occasion dedicated to them. 
  • To bring together a mixture of people from different levels of age and professional experience, ranging from undergraduate students to senior scientists. 
  • To provide an opportunity for underrepresented minority graduate students to present their research.
  • To provide an informal, comfortable setting where all the students can meet applied and computational mathematicians with a wide variety of jobs in academia, national laboratories, industry, and government. 

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