Nathaniel Whitaker, department head, has been recognized as one of Mathematically Gifted & Black's Black History Month 2019 honorees. An excerpt from his interview follows.
Where are you from?
I was born in Ahoskie, North Carolina in 1951 where my father was a sharecropper. We moved to Newport News, Virginia, when I was 2 years old, where my father took a better paying job in the Newport News Shipyard. We lived in segregated housing and I went to segregated schools in Newport News. Every Sunday evening, my father took us to a drive-in theatre. There was a fence in the middle separating colored (as we were called then) from white. ...
What is/are your most proud accomplishment(s) in regards to your career in the mathematical sciences?
I am proud to have published in research journals, over 40 papers. I am proud to have mentored and made an impact in students lives. One student that I advised starting when she was a freshmen has a permanent position at Oxford in math biology. I supervised the thesis of the first African-American to receive a PhD in mathematics at the University of Massachusetts. I was part of a 9 year program called AIMS, which involved teaching accelerated math to African-American students in the Amherst school system. Most of these students went on to top universities and did very well. A major accomplishment is being the Head of a Math & Stat department at a major research university. ...
Please share some words of wisdom/inspiration
I have had a great and long career and I was thinking about retiring before the possibility of being Head became a possibility. The Head of the department is a job that a lot of people avoid, calling it a “thankless job”, and UMass has a huge department. However, I thought about my mother and father with 6th and 9th grade educations, respectively, who worked really hard so that their kids could have opportunities better than they had. This was for them. Another one of my hobbies is genealogy. I have built an extensive family tree. Of course, I ran into barriers because of slavery. The genealogy has caused me to think about all of my ancestors before my parents who had even less opportunities. This was for them too!! Words that I say to myself frequently and keep me moving forward, by Maya Angelou, are “I am the hope and dream of the slave”. I had to take the job!
Floyd Williams, emeritus professor of mathematics, was also honored this year.
Read on: Black History Month 2019 Honorees