‘Math has become my art:’ Podcaster, mathematics professor and advocate speaks at Wichita State

Once planning on being an art teacher, Pamela Harris found a new art with mathematics. 

“I think math has become my art,” Harris, now an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said. “People ask me that, they’re like, ‘Oh, do you still paint, do you do like sculptures’ and I was like, ‘I don’t need to.’

“For me, my creative outlet has become math, right? I get to create mathematics.”

Harris visited Wichita State to present in the “Lecture Series in the Mathematical Sciences,” on Friday, and also on Sonia Kovalevsky Day, an all-women event geared toward empowering future generations of women in STEM. 

“A lot of the math that I do is, it’s so easy to explain,” Harris said. “I can show (this function) to a kid and they can play with the numbers, even though they might not get to the formula of how many there are,” Harris said. 

Harris said she’s talked at lecture events before and is able to see the participants engage with math in a way that’s not just ‘how fast can you multiply,’ or ‘how fast can you do this arithmetic problem?’

“And that part for me is so important,” Harris said. “To see a new generation of students not believe the math is just the stuff that’s in your textbook, like to see that math can be creative and artistic and then you can just have fun and play with it.”

Harris’s presentation was titled “Parking Functions: Choose your own adventure,” and followed the classic “choose your own adventure format,” where audience members help direct the course of the presentation.

“It’s kind of nice because there’s so many things that I could talk about that then I just put it all together and then you know, set the slide deck so that it selects whatever the audience kind of wants,” Harris said.

Harris has been working on this research since 2017, and while she saw parking functions in other contexts of work, it was never the sole investigative point — until working with a group of graduate students at a conference.

“I was like, no, these objects in and of themselves are really interesting,” Harris said. “And there’s more to be said here and discovered.”

Harris also is the co-host of the podcast, Mathematically Uncensored, which began in 2020. Harris and Aris Winger started the podcast to make private conversations public about being a mathematician of color.

“There’s still a lot of negative experiences we have,” Harris said. “He’s a Black man, I’m Latina. And so as minorities in math, there’s many of us, but still, we’re very underrepresented in the STEM fields.”

Along with co-hosting the podcast, Harris is also the president and co-founder of Lathisms, Latinxs and Hispanics in the Mathematical Sciences.

The organization started with a conversation on Facebook seven years ago. 

Harris tried to compile a list of Latino people in math and realized there wasn’t one, so the founders started a calendar for Hispanic Heritage Month, where a biography was released each day of that month. 

As the calendar gained traffic, someone suggested starting a podcast, then a YouTube lecture series was created, along with the creation of a book

“It’s so interesting to me that I think as a kid if somebody would have been like, ‘imagine yourself being old,’” Harris said, laughing. “I would have never thought that this could be a life. I didn’t know that you could be a mathematician and travel everywhere and talk about the thing that you love.”


*A former version of this story incorrectly spelled Winger’s name. This version reflects the correction.