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Multiple National Honors for Tapia

Source: Siam News, January/February 1997

No first-world nation can maintain the health of its economy or society when such a large part of its population remains outside all scientific and technological activity," says Richard Tapia, the Noah Harding Professor of Computational and Applied Mathematics at Rice University.

Tapia's "outsiders" are members of minority groups that have been seriously underrepresented in mathematics and science. These groups, and especially Mexican-Americans (the ethnic group to which Tapia himself belongs), have long had in Tapia an advocate, a supporter, and, given his research accomplishments and his 1992 election to the National Academy of Engineering, a source of inspiration.

His tireless and wide-ranging efforts on behalf of these groups led this fall to national recognition in the form of a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring. Established by the Clinton administration in support of its commitment to maximizing the nation's "pool of talented, well-educated and highly trained scientists and engineers," in part by "actively increasing the participation of talent reflective of the nation's diversity," the awards were presented for the first time this year, to Tapia and nine others.

An Important Job In Trying Times

At the White House ceremony, Tapia found himself accepting congratulations from former Rice colleague Neal Lane, the cutout director of the National Science Foundation, not only for the mentoring award but also for another recent presidential honor: appointment to the National Science Board, the 24 member governing body of NSF.

Members of NSB, who are appointed by the President and approved by the Senate, serve six-year terms. Representing a variety of science and engineering disciplines in both industry and academia, they are called on to advise the President on policy matters related to research and education in science and engineering. With respect to NSF, the board reviews and approves overall program plans and annual budgets. NSB also reviews and approves NSF awards (with authority for those below specified dollar amounts in general delegated to the NSF director).

"NSB has such an extremely important job," says Tapia; "these are trying times, and some hard financial decisions will have to be made. I'm looking forward to being involved with those decisions, and sharing my understanding."

The two very different White House honors-and for that matter just being at the White House-were extremely exciting, says Tapia, who describes yet another recent honor-his selection by Hispanic Engineer Magazine as Hispanic Engineer of the Year-as the most moving of his recent awards. With 2000 people attending the award ceremony- family, friends, colleagues, 51 minority students from Rice-"that was the moment that was a true high, a moment I don't expect to happen again."

The first academic to receive the annual award, which has now been given eight times, Tapia was selected from a national pool of 225 nominees. Cited for the work in numerical optimization for which he is well known to the applied mathematics community, he was also commended for excellence in teaching and for the work he has done to encourage students to pursue careers in science, mathematics, and engineering.

Balancing Act

A self-described "floundering student" and even, in high school days, "a discipline problem," Tapia looks back on a series of people who in his own life served as "mentors for short periods of time, people I respected who went beyond the call of duty to counsel me, guide me, ask me about my plans. "As he works with his students at Rice, encouraging "a student who doesn't even see an advanced degree as a possibility because he doesn't have straight A's" to apply to graduate school, Tapia is emulating his fifth-grade teacher, two math teachers from the junior college he was attending who convinced him that he should be at UCLA (where he eventually received his PhD), and, once he was at UCLA, David Sanchez. It was Sanchez, says Tapia, who "pulled me out as a graduate student, guided and directed me, asked about my plans for jobs and the future." It was also largely on the advice of Sanchez that Tapia went in 1968 to the Mathematics Research Center at the University of Wisconsin.

In 1970, after two years in Wisconsin, Tapia joined the Rice faculty as an assistant professor. Today, in addition to the Noah Harding professorship in the Department of Computational and Applied Mathematics, he is director of education and minority programs in the Rice-based Center for Research on Parallel Computation (a position that essentially involves the direction of all the center's outreach activities) and associate director for minority affairs in the Office of Graduate Studies at Rice.

In his approach to outreach. Tapia is anything but a distant, passive role model-he seeks out minorities of all ages and, after making them aware of opportunities in the mathematical sciences, convinces them, by force of personality and example, that they, too, can succeed in a challenging, stimulating field. "Awareness," long a key goal of Tapia's efforts, shows up explicitly in the "Mathematical and Computational Sciences Awareness Week" sessions that he has been running at Rice for the last seven summers; participants, Houston-area teachers and administrators from schools with significant minority enrollments, return to their students with knowledge of current research areas, information about the job market, and strategies for motivating their students to pursue careers in science and mathematics. Writing in a recent issue of the CRPC news bulletin, Tapia pointed to the more than 700 teachers and 750 students who have been the direct beneficiaries to date of the center's outreach programs, of which Mathematical and Computational Sciences Awareness Week is just one example.

"The hardest thing in my life," he says of the conflicts that inevitably arise in a life with so many priorities, "has been to balance teaching, research, outreach, and family." Against his regret that it was the members of his family (and himself) who were shortchanged is his considerable satisfaction about the other areas, including research, where a current focus, with an active group of postdocs, faculty and graduate students, is on computational biology and, in work being done with Mary Wheeler, on bioremediation.

An Approachable Mathematician

Tapia has recently been able to reduce some of the demands on his time in one very positive way: Many participants in Mathematical and Computational Science Awareness Week, he says, go back to their communities and become K-12 leaders, in some cases winning awards for leadership. "They're very effective with their own communities, more effective than I could be," Tapia says. In the same way, he increasingly responds to speaking invitations, especially in K-12 settings, by including students or groups of students in the presentations. Again, he reports, the students in the audience are able to relate in an extremely natural way to these student speakers.

Extremely satisfying to him are the vast numbers of former students, colleagues, and participants in the Mathematical and Computational Sciences Awareness Week and Spend a Summer with a Scientist programs who stay in touch with him: "We've built a network that is really an extended family or community; it's a great satisfaction to me that it extends across the country."

That network has expanded in the last year in at least one extremely unexpected direction: Tapia currently corresponds with several young Hispanic men who are serving time in prison. Most heard about him via "A Delicate Balance," one of six episodes in the PBS series Breakthrough that aired last spring, chronicling the experiences of 20 people of color who were working in science or mathematics.

Most of Tapia's correspondents make it clear that while they never thought they could relate to a mathematician, Tapia's background and varied interests convinced them that they could communicate with him. They often ask him for advice and for math books, which he sends. What is especially poignant in many of their stories, he says, is that these men knew as students that they had some talent for mathematics but were not able to use that ability to get themselves out of their inner city environments-were not aware, in fact, that it could be used in that way.

The young men in prison "see me as a mathematician, but also as someone who's like them and approachable," Tapia says. At about the same time, the approachability so evident in the PBS show was enhanced by the cover of the spring issue of Hispanic Engineer Magazine, which shows Tapia and a group of students posing with one of the '57 Chevys (he has two) on which he spends much of what free time he has.

With his correspondents' permission, Tapia sometimes uses their stories when he speaks to young people, as in a recent talk to a group of second graders. "It's a good way to start discussing the future," he says. "Everyone gets into the discussion, even children who do not take part in regular discussions. All of a sudden, there is a different group of experts."