Nathaniel Whitaker

Interim Dean Whitaker Delivers Einstein Public Lecture at University of Cincinnati

Courtesy of the American Mathematical Society, whose staff wrote this story.

May 19, 2023

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear

I rise

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear

I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise

I rise

I rise.

As he delivered the 2023 Einstein Public Lecture in April, mathematics professor Nathaniel Whitaker invoked these words of Maya Angelou. The poem, Still I Rise, “has always motivated me,” he told the audience, “because I have an obligation, I believe.”

A highlight of the AMS Spring Central Sectional Meeting, Whitaker’s hour-long talk drew a sizable crowd from meeting attendees, the University of Cincinnati host campus, and the local community. He discussed both his research and his path through the academic world, which began in the segregated South. “I want to emphasize that part of my journey, I had a lot of help along the way.”

Growing up in coastal Virginia in the middle of the last century, Whitaker recalled watching movies at a drive-in theater that had a fence dividing whites from Blacks. His parents were sharecroppers with sixth- and ninth-grade educations who valued learning; Whitaker was among the first Black students to attend a whites-only high school in the area. Supportive neighbors included Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and other groundbreaking Black female mathematicians who worked nearby for NASA, portrayed in the film Hidden Figures.

Today, as interim dean of the College of Natural Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Whitaker oversees one-third of the largest UMass campus: 400 faculty members in 13 departments plus 7,000 undergraduates and 1,000 graduate students.

And as a mathematician, his natural curiosity about how things work continues to impact real-world discoveries in fields from nephrology to oil recovery.

A numerical analyst, Whitaker develops algorithms to solve physical and biological problems described by differential equations, from two-dimensional turbulence to waves in electromagnetic fields to Bose-Einstein condensates.

Under the direction of Alexandre Chorin, Whitaker wrote his dissertation at the University of California, Berkeley, on numerical algorithms for solving the equations modeling a simple model for fluid flow through porous media or between two plates. He completed his PhD in 1987 and was hired immediately as an assistant professor at UMass Amherst. However, Whitaker took a more circuitous route than some to the roles of mathematics professor, department chair, and university administrator.

As an undergraduate, Whitaker attended Hampton Institute, a Historically Black College [now Hampton University]. He changed his major to economics from mathematics, which became his minor, in part because he felt less prepared for college-level mathematics courses.

After receiving his bachelor’s degree from Hampton, Whitaker worked for five years in cost-benefit analysis for the US Army but found the job to be unrewarding.

Mathematics beckoned, in the form of evening classes at Virginia Commonwealth University. Soon Whitaker was inspired to apply to graduate programs. The University of Cincinnati offered both admission and financial support, so off to Ohio he went. “Thanks to the University of Cincinnati, for taking a chance on me,” Whitaker said.

“When I went to UC, I was not confident about being successful because my math background was not the strongest. I was really scared. I worked as hard as I’d ever worked.

“Nevertheless, I can remember so many faculty at UC who supported me. David Styer took a chance on me and accepted me into the program, and helped me in transition. Jim Deddens taught a great analysis course that got me used to grad school. The chair, Ken Meyer, and associate chair, Chuck Groesch, were always friendly and welcoming to me.”

Most importantly, he said, “Diego Murio inspired me with his numerical analysis courses, believed in me, and planted the seed of continuing my doctoral work at UC Berkeley.

“When I left the department after a long day, I would pass Murio’s office. He was often working late. I stopped by frequently to say hello. He would welcome me in and talk to me, sometimes more than an hour, about his research and other things.”

Without Murio’s support, Whitaker said that he might not have flourished in graduate school, and might have returned to the workforce instead of embarking on a PhD at Berkeley in 1981.

At Berkeley, Whitaker encountered a critical mass of Black mathematicians and Black scientists, who tutored one another and created a social network. Home of the Mathematics Opportunity Program, UC Berkeley broke ground in recruiting female mathematicians and mathematicians of color. “Not a whole lot of African Americans received PhDs in mathematics, but from, I believe, 1978 to 2015, there were 27 African Americans from Berkeley,” Whitaker said.

Progress for Black mathematicians is slow, Whitaker said. The average number of Black PhD candidates per university mathematics department continues to be “less than one,” he said.

Indeed, at the reception following the Einstein lecture, a Black mathematician from another university told Whitaker that he appreciated the talk: “He had felt invisible and not part of the community.”

Yet in his career, Whitaker has seen a pervasive theme, a correlation between a collegial environment and academic accomplishment. “It was great to return to Cincinnati,” he said after the lecture. “I realized even more how welcoming the department had been to me in 1979 and how essential they were for my success.”

Whitaker said that the story of William S. Claytor, the third African American to receive a PhD in mathematics, resonates with him. Early in his academic career, Claytor published two papers in the top journal, Annals of Mathematics. “He gave a great talk at the 1936 meeting of the American Math Society,” Whitaker recounted, “but was not allowed to stay in the hotel, barring him from informal interactions with other mathematicians … Soon afterwards, he quit doing research due to exclusions like this.”

Whitaker continued, “At Berkeley, I felt welcomed and included as a graduate student into a community.  At UMass, I also was welcomed and included into a faculty community. Both were necessary conditions for my success.”

When most graduate math departments have almost no African American graduate students or faculty, Whitaker said, it’s imperative to come up with ways of recruiting a more diverse and inclusive community, in order to not lose so much untapped talent. “As a mathematician,” he said, “I believe that talent is equally distributed among all identities.”

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