"I Must Help"
Richard Tapia's mission is to bring more minority students into
science, engineering and mathematics classes.
By David D. Medina
Source: Sallyport, October/November 1993
At this year's Cinco de Mayo celebration at West University Elementary
School, Rice computational and applied mathematics professor Richard
Tapia, wearing a blue suit and his trademark cowboy boots, spoke to
students about the Hispanic presence in the United States.
His talk spilled over to the importance of studying mathematics and
science, a topic that has the potential effect of sleeping pills. But
Tapia masterfully handled the giddy young students who packed the school
cafeteria, which had been decorated with Mexican flags.
He questioned his audience, praised the students' comments and provided
anecdotes and explanations that even a first grader could understand. He
implored the students, especially those who were Hispanic or black, to
pursue careers in science, engineering and mathematics.
"If we have more underrepresented minorities in these areas," he
explained, "we are going to improve the health of the nation."
Tapia is widely recognized for his efforts to get more minorities into
these high-paying, high-prestige fields. Of Mexican parentage himself,
Tapia has built a successful career as a mathematician specializing in
computational optimization. He is also an award-winning teacher at Rice
University, where he is on the faculty of the computational and applied
Tapia believes that by helping minorities and women embark upon careers
in science, engineering and math, the nation will eliminate many of its
social ills and once again lead the world in technology. Of the 1,000
doctorates awarded in mathematical sciences in the United States last
year, only two went to blacks and one to a Hispanic.
"If we continue to close our eyes to the option of going into math and
science," he says, "as Hispanics, as blacks, we are never going to be
part of mainstream America, to take our rightful place, to control our
destiny and to lead America."
As part of his crusade, Tapia directs the Spend a Summer with a
Scientist program, which is sponsored by the Rice Center for Research on
Parallel Computation (CRPC). The program brings minority students to
campus during the summer to assist a Rice faculty member with research.
The experience is intended to interest students in science by exposing
them to research firsthand.
In addition, Tapia established the Rice CRPC Mathematical and
Computational Sciences Awareness Workshops in 1989. The workshops bring
about 50 elementary and secondary school teachers from the Houston area
to Rice each summer to visit with scientists, business professionals and
educators. The purpose of the workshops is to make teachers aware of the
many college and career opportunities in math and science available to
minorities. Other universities are now emulating the program.
Lucille Barrera, a science teacher at West University Elementary School,
attended the workshop in 1992.
"He is a dynamic speaker, very motivating and inspirational," Barrera
says of Tapia. "He doesn't know the self-confidence he has given me. So
much confidence that I've decided to go back to graduate school."
In the meantime, Barrera teaches her students that they can become
scientists and engineers. For the Cinco de Mayo celebration, Barrera had
posters of Hispanic scientists hung in the halls at West University
Elementary. She says the workshop inspired her with the idea.
Ed Dean, a mathematics professor at the University of Houston, attended
Tapia's West University talk to hear his former mentor speak. Dean, a
Mexican American from New Mexico, received a Ph.D. in mathematical
sciences from Rice in 1985. He credits Tapia with encouraging him to go
to graduate school and, later, encouraging him to go into academia. Dean
now lectures youngsters on the importance of a college education. At the
Cinco de Mayo talk, he listened attentively.
"I wanted to spy on Tapia and borrow some of his lecturing techniques,"
Driving through South Texas or lecturing around the country, Tapia is
always on the lookout for talented minority students. He recruited
Monica Martinez to graduate school at Rice while attending a conference
for the Society of Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in
Science in San Antonio two years ago. Tapia talked to Martinez during a
break in the meetings, while they were watching the Super Bowl with
other conference participants.
The Stanford graduate came away deeply impressed with his commitment to
"He allowed me to feel an excitement for graduate school," she says.
"The fact that he listened and understood my needs to work in academia,
and the fact that he did it during the Super Bowl, was something I've
never experienced. I have a very high regard for him."
Martinez is now a second-year graduate student in Rice's computational
and applied mathematics department.
At Rice, Tapia wears the triple hats of professor of computational and
applied mathematics, associate director for Minority Affairs in the
Office of Graduate Studies and director of Education and Human Resources
for the Center for Research on Parallel Computation. In these roles,
Tapia has been responsible for increasing the number of women and
minorities studying mathematics and science at Rice.
In 1990, the National Research Council named Tapia one of the 20 most
influential leaders in minority mathematics education in the country.
Later that year, Tapia received the Hispanic Engineer National
Achievement Award for Education from the magazine Hispanic Engineer.
Last year, he became the first Mexican American to be elected into the
National Academy of Engineering, one of the highest honors that can be
bestowed on a scientist. The academy noted his creative leadership in
minority education in the mathematical and computer sciences and his
contributions in computational mathematics.
Tapia is a specialist in linear and nonlinear programming. His research
involves using computers and mathematics to solve large, complex classes
of problems in science, engineering, economics and business. He focuses
on developing algorithms that run effectively on the newest generation
of parallel computers. Algorithms are step-by-step procedures for
solving mathematical problems.
Traditional computers implement algorithms by completing each step in
sequence, a time-consuming process for very large problems. Today's
super-computers have thousands of processors that work simultaneously to
complete many steps at once. This allows the machine to handle much
larger problems more quickly.
Tapia deals primarily with algorithms that are based on what are called
"interior-point techniques." This kind of algorithm represents an
improvement over more conventional mathematical approaches to
optimization. Interior-point techniques are specifically aimed at
dealing with extremely large optimization problems.
Tapia is a dynamic and engaging teacher as well as a respected
"He is the only person I know," says John Dennis, chair of the computer
science department, "to receive a perfect teaching evaluation in a
course primarily for undergraduates."
Dennis describes how Tapia makes his students participate in the process
of discovery. Often he will pose a question and then let the students
carry the discussion on for days until they hit a blind alley. Tapia,
who never lets on that he knows the answer, will come in one day and
lead them step by step into the light.
"He's fantastic," says graduate student Tony Kearsley. "He excels at
transmitting ideas." Kearsley came to Rice to pursue a Ph.D. in
nonlinear optimization after he read Tapia's research papers.
"One of his greatest strengths is that he is very open-minded," says
Kearsley. "He allows students to make mistakes, but he never makes you
feel that you were wrong."
Tapia, who won the George R. Brown Teaching Award for Superior Teaching
in 1991, has often been compared to Jaime Escalante, the East Los
Angeles math teacher portrayed in Stand and Deliver. In the movie,
Escalante helps poor students climb over the barrio barriers and into
Tapia was born in a Los Angeles barrio in 1939 to parents who instilled
in him a love for education. He has two sisters, a younger brother and a
His mother Magda was 12 when she and a younger sister set out from the
hills of Chihuahua, Mexico, for Los Angeles, where she stayed briefly
with distant relatives. She had planned to get an education but was
forced to drop out of high school to support herself. She lived with a
Jewish family in exchange for doing household chores.
Tapia's father Amado was 13 when he came from Nayarit in central Mexico
with his mother and two brothers. After his mother died, he was taken in
by a Japanese family that owned a nursery. During World War II, the
Japanese family was sent to a relocation camp, and Amado (who speaks
Japanese) was entrusted with the business. When the family returned,
Amado was made a business partner. Eventually he started his own
Tapia says he learned from his father how to handle people and be
aggressive without appearing to be aggressive. From his mother, he
learned to be determined. "When she set a goal, there was nothing that
was going to block her from achieving it," he comments.
Tapia also inherited a native American face and straight black hair, a
source of pride that makes him wonder where his roots lie. He felt
closely aligned with the Zapotecs when he visited Oaxaca, Mexico, two
years ago, but his mother believes there may be ancestral ties to the
Taramara Indians in Chihuahua.
Tapia thinks his love for mathematics may have come from the Maya, the
first civilization to grasp the concept of the number zero. From first
grade on, Tapia and his brother Robert were math stars, despite their
lack of role models. Robert is now CEO of a software company in the
Silicon Valley in California.
In high school, when the mood allowed, the Tapia brothers did extremely
well in their nonmath classes as well.
"If you look at our high school records on paper, neither one of us was
a star," Tapia says. "Yet I tell you, our talent was as good as
anybody's in that school. We were just not consistent, not smooth. We
didn't accept that being valedictorian was of any value. It was much
more important to race cars."
Cars were one of Tapia's early passions. At 10, he and Robert saved $25
from their paper routes to buy a Model A, which they drove on their
five-acre lot in Torrance. The Tapia family had moved to the suburbs
after construction of a freeway forced them out of their home in the
One day when the car wouldn't start, Tapia and Robert took it apart and
fixed it, thus igniting their passion for revamping cars. They honed
their skills working for free at auto body shops and garages. When they
were 15, they built a 1932 Ford street roadster and raced it at local
On February 13, 1968, the Tapia brothers set a world record in elapsed
time for fuel dragster racing. Their Chrysler powered dragster sped
through the quarter mile in 6.54 seconds. That same year, Tapia received
his Ph.D. from the University of California at Los Angeles.
Tapia did not zoom through his education. After high school, he attended
Harbor Junior College in Wilmington, California. He did not apply to a
four-year college because he had not received proper guidance from his
high school counselor.
"No one in my family had ever gone to college, and I didn't know I could
go to a place like UCLA," he says.
At Harbor, three professors noticed his mathematical talents and
encouraged him to go to UCLA. Tapia transferred and received his
bachelor's degree in mathematics from UCLA in 1961. While an
undergraduate, he married Jean Rodriguez, a ballet dancer. Their
daughter Circee was born when he was a junior. They later had a son,
Richard, now an undergraduate at the University of Houston and a rock
and roll drummer.
Before continuing on to graduate school at UCLA, Tapia worked for a year
and a half at Todd Shipyards, where he used IBM computers and
mathematics to design ships. He had plans to work for IBM after
completing his doctorate in mathematics, but the chairman of his
department told him he had the potential to be a successful teacher and
researcher. Tapia went on to do a postdoctorate in applied mathematics
at the Mathematics Research Center at the University of Wisconsin.
He received job offers from several universities following his two-year
stint at Wisconsin. He accepted a faculty position at Rice in 1970
because the university's two-year-old mathematical sciences department
offered him a chance to do research with outstanding colleagues. He also
chose Rice because of Houston's racial diversity.
"I wanted to be involved in outreach programs, working with Hispanics
and blacks," he says. "I didn't want to go to an oasis."
At Rice, Tapia's career took off. Within two years he got tenure, and
four years later he was made a full professor. In 1978, he became the
chair of the mathematical sciences department (now the Department of
Computational and Applied Mathematics), a position he held until 1983.
In 1991, the year he received the George R. Brown Teaching Award, he was
named Noah Harding Professor of Computational and Applied
While his career was advancing, Tapia suffered two tragedies in his
personal life. Jean was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1978 and
later with myasthenia gravis, both neurological diseases.
Forced to sell her Houston dance studio and experiencing bouts of
depression, Jean decided to develop an exercise program specifically for
multiple sclerosis patients. She now leads a class twice a week at S.
Philip's Methodist Church, and her exercise program has been put into a
video called Coming Back. For her work, she has received the Jefferson
Award for Public Service and the Service to Mankind Award.
The second blow came in 1982, when Circee, 21, was killed in a car
accident. The former Rice student was on her way to campus to practice
with a dance group when a drunken driver ran a red light at Greenbriar
and University streets and hit her car.
At Jean's suggestion, Tapia worked to overcome his grief by returning to
his number one hobby, cars. He bought a 1978 Datsun 280Z and converted
it into a showcase car that won first place 11 times in state
competitions. He works on the 280Z and his two classic '57 Chevys
wearing a cowboy hat and listening to Tejano music. His "daily driver"
is a 1970 Chevy muscle car.
Together, the Tapias have found solace in their son and in their
daughter Becky, nine, whom they adopted in 1984.
"I can go into a garage and look at cars for hours," Tapia says. "The
same with Becky. When I work with Becky on her schoolwork, I get this
great satisfaction and stabilizing effect."
For Tapia, helping others comes as naturally as his mathematical talent.
It's a need he must satisfy.
"I must help," he explains. "I believe I can do some good in improving
the situation with minorities being underrepresented in science and
mathematics. I grew up in the barrios, in a hard-core area where 10 of
my friends overdosed on heroin. I understand the youth, and I understand
how important education is."