Dr. Floyd Williams was raised in extreme poverty in Kansas City, Missouri. His mother told him not to complain about their situation but to have faith in God and work hard. Her advice worked. Williams is now a professor of mathematics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
However, it was music, not mathematics, that appealed to him through high school. "In fact," he admits, "mathematics was the only in course in which I did not do well." Williams had not thought of going to college until his last week in high school when he was offered a music scholarship at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri.
"In my sophomore year, I became intrigued with the theory of relativity," he recalls. "I can not explain why, but I was drawn to trying to understand it. This was my main motivation for starting to study mathematics." Williams graduated from Lincoln with a major in mathematics, and semi-majors in physics and music. He went on to earn a Ph.D at Washington University in St. Louis.
His thesis was in the field of Lie Theory, advanced mathematics that deals with symmetry, and he has continued to work in that area for the past 20 years, with a current emphasis on mathematical Physics.*
He received and MRI grant in 1983 to continue his research in this field. "Getting the award boosted my confidence and ushered me into the mainstream of mathematics," he comments. "I has participated in sponsored research before, but I had never been a principal investigator. The results of the work done with the MRI award enabled me to compete successfully for the mainstream grants which I have had ever since."
Williams has felt the sting of discrimination during his career, but he also had been soothed by supportive teachers and colleagues. He believed that he has an obligation as a role model for helping young minorities enter science and engineering. "Many kids today see only athletes and entertainers as examples of success," he notes. Dr. Williams has helped to set up programs that allow precollege students and undergraduates to meet and talk with mathematicians, scientists and engineers. "All that many of these youngsters see is different courses," he says, "but they want to know what mathematicians do from 8 am to 5 pm. Once minorities commit to graduate work in science or engineering," he continues, "they need extra help and support for what, for many, is the foreign environment of graduate school. Such programs exist at few universities, but we need more of them."
*This article was amended from the original at the request of Dr. Floyd Williams.
[Source: National Science Foundation, "Models of Excellence," (NSF 90-28), Washington, DC, 1990.]