Academics: Faculty

Tasha R. Inniss, Ph.D.

Mathematics Professor Awarded UNCF/Mellon Faculty Residency

Tasha R. Inniss, Ph.D., associate professor of mathematics, is the recipient of a UNCF/Mellon Faculty Residency Programs Award. This fall, Dr. Inniss will serve as a visiting scholar in the Department of Industrial Engineering and Management Sciences at Northwestern University. With an interest in areas of applied mathematics, Dr. Inniss will forge research collaborations with renowned academicians and attend classes to expand her knowledge about the advances in data mining, operations research and supply chain modeling.

As a visiting scholar, Dr. Inniss will also develop ideas for mathematics courses and create undergraduate research projects. Established in 2006, the award provides an opportunity for selected UNCF faculty members to take up to a semester away from their respective home institutions to complete or begin a scholarly project. The UNCF/Mellon Programs are directed by Cynthia Neal Spence, Ph.D., associate director of sociology. Since its inception, 12 Spelman faculty have received UNCF/Mellon residency awards.

A Calling for Mathematics

Make no mistake about it: Tasha R. Inniss, Ph.D., loves mathematics.

This couldn’t be more evident than when Dr. Inniss talks about math. She breaks into a wide smile when she speaks about the subject she first fell for as a young girl.

“I’ve loved math since I was in fourth grade,” explains Dr. Inniss, associate professor of mathematics and department vice chair. “As a kid, my teachers would send me to the board to solve problems. Also, I competed in statewide competitions. I’d even save my math homework for last because I enjoyed math the most. For me, it was like dessert.”

A Spelman College professor since 2004, Dr. Inniss now has the career – and the job – she’s always dreamed of. As a woman of color, Dr. Inniss wants to dismantle the perception that women and African-American women in particular, are not capable of doing math. One of about 150 Black women in the United States with a doctorate degree in mathematics, Dr. Inniss now sees her role as a mentor to other women of color, helping them navigate and pursue future careers in mathematics.

“My dream was always to mentor women of color and be able to make an impact in their lives,” said Dr. Inniss, a humble, spiritual woman with a quick smile and sweet spirit. “Being a woman of color pursuing a doctorate in math was difficult because there’s a perception that only men can do math. The field is dominated by white men and some people don’t believe women are capable and worthy of receiving advanced degrees..”

High Expectations

For this New Orleans native, preparation begins in the classroom. Known for having a reputation as a tough and strict professor, she expects all of her students to perform, be prepared, show integrity and respect, and be on time.

“As a professor, I work to establish a climate of mutual respect,” said Dr. Inniss, who received the Spelman College Presidential Award for Excellence in Teaching award for junior faculty in 2007. “I expect a lot from my students, so I’m going to be hard on them because I care. I need them to know that I want them to be successful. I may be nice, but I won’t let them get away with anything.”

One of her former students, Naleceia Davis, C’2011, agrees. She considers Dr. Inniss a role model and an “amazing” professor who is dedicated to the success of her students. Davis said Dr. Inniss’ warm personality was always reflected in her teaching.

“She’s very upbeat and innovative,” said Davis, who served as Dr. Inniss’ research mentee, and is now pursuing a doctorate degree in operations research. “I can honestly say she was one of the most challenging professors I had, because she has such high expectations for her students both academically and professionally.”

Dr. Inniss grew up with high expectations. Her paternal grandfather, Clarence, was a Harvard graduate and a sixth-grade teacher who helped her with her homework and stressed the importance of education. Her biggest role model is her mother, Leslie, a retired college professor. Before her mother retired, Dr. Inniss had the opportunity to observe her teaching sociology at Florida A&M University and was impressed because she feels her mother is a phenomenal teacher. “I admire my mom so much because she achieved a lot as a single mother,” she shared. “I learned to have faith and persevere from her. I just adore her because she has such a loving and generous spirit.”

Another role model is longtime mentor and Spelman colleague Sylvia Bozeman, Ph.D., professor of mathematics, who described Dr. Inniss as a caring and thoughtful person who truly cares about her students and their holistic development.

“We’re fortunate to have her in the department,” said Dr. Bozeman, who first met Dr. Inniss in the mid-1990s. “She’s a great teacher, she’s enthusiastic in the classroom, and she has such boundless energy. She shows so much goodwill, and she’s always trying to do more and more.”

Love For Math Grows

Dr. Inniss’ love for math intensified when she entered high school and college. While attending Xavier University in Louisiana as an undergraduate, Dr. Inniss grew to love math so much that she wrote a poem about the beauty of integration techniques. She decided she wanted to teach college math after receiving an “A” in her college Calculus II class.

“I knew I wanted my whole life to involve math in some form or fashion,” said Dr. Inniss, whose neat office is filled with teaching awards and accolades and plaques extolling her Christian faith. “Math is a part of my calling. It’s not hard. It’s like a puzzle. It’s all about how math is taught.”

In 1993, she graduated summa cum laude from Xavier University with a degree in mathematics. From there, she completed her master’s degree in applied mathematics from Georgia Tech. In 2000, she received her doctorate, also in applied mathematics, from the University of Maryland at College Park, making her one of the first Black women to receive a doctorate in mathematics from the institution.

After serving as an assistant professor at Trinity College in Washington, D.C., for three years, Dr. Inniss yearned to be closer to home. More than anything, she wanted to work – and make an impact – as a mathematics professor at Spelman. That wish came true when she began working at the College in January 2004.

A Labor of Love

Dr. Inniss now realizes her work is just beginning. In addition to teaching, she also serves as principal investigator of a three-year, $450,000 National Science Foundation grant titled Math RAMP, or Research and Mentoring Program. The grant was awarded to the mathematics department and is designed to encourage more African-American women to pursue advanced degrees in mathematical sciences by exposing them to different areas and career options.

As part of the grant, scholarships are awarded to high-potential math majors and a teaching fellowship has been offered to a woman of color at the master’s degree level. Efforts are also being made to develop an online mentoring program between current math majors and Spelman math alumnae.

Dr. Inniss said she remains committed to doing what’s best for students.

“I love being able to contribute to the legacy of phenomenal women,” said Dr. Inniss, who estimates she’s taught about 1,200 students since being at Spelman. “Students tell me I’ve made a difference in their lives, and that warms my heart. God has blessed me abundantly. I’m at my dream job. I’m at peace.” –  Alicia Lurry is senior communications specialist and editor of the Spelman Connection for the Office of Communications.  This article first appeared in Inside Spelman.