By the Numbers
It All Adds Up for Math Prof Richard Tapia
Source: Houston Chronicle, April 25, 1996
By Cheryl Laird
Richard Tapia's friends call him "Chief."
He brings to mind a fast-talking, bronze-skinned version on John Wayne,
with his imposing build, shock of black hair and aura of confidence,
bordering on cockiness.
But he's actually a Rice University professor who can make a graduate-
level lecture on computational mathematics sound fun even to a listener
who only understands every fourth word.
He speaks in a lyrical rapid-fire staccato that mixes slang with math
theorems. "So, my equivalence is cool, right?" He repeats phrases
hypnotically, as if allowing time for lesser-trained minds to catch up
with his bullet train of thought.
"OK," he tells his class, barely repressing his excitement at a certain
computational technique. "This is fascinating; this is fascinating. I
love this; I love this, probably because I did it. But even if I didn't,
I would probably still love it."
Tapia may not be a local household name, but he's a hot speaker
internationally in his research field, which is roughly along the lines
of what Jeff Goldblum's character did in Jurassic Park, using math
models to predict and optimize outcomes.
He's also a higher-education version of Jaime Escalante, the inspiring
Los Angeles teacher made famous in Stand and Deliver.
He believes the country's future rests in the hands of a diverse
community of scientists. He'd like to see more young people who want to
"make a difference" consider his profession instead of law school or
social work. They still can reach out to schools and others in need, and
accomplish more in the long run, he says.
Tapia is one of 20 leading African-American, Latino and American Indian
scientists and engineers featured in the new, six-part documentary
Breakthrough: The Changing Face of Science in America, produced by the
same folks who made the award-winning Eyes on the Prize.
The final two installments of Breakthrough will be broadcast tonight on
Channel 8. Tapia will be part of the episode beginning at 9 p.m. Another
Houstonian, engineer/entrepreneur Israel Galvan, will be featured in the
earlier installment starting at 8 p.m.
Tapia thinks the timing of Breakthrough is fortunate, considering recent
court action undermining affirmative action at Texas' universities. He
says it's important to show that scientists of color are in no way
inferior, and he believes that, with some modifications, affirmative
action should be continued until it is no longer needed.
"I grew up in a world where Mexican was a derogatory adjectiveŠ" he says
in Breakthrough. "My mother would tell me, 'Be proud because you come
from such beautiful people.' "
Tapia was born in a Los Angeles barrio, the son of Mexican immigrants.
He was seduced by drag-racing, in which he set a world record, and by
the dependability of mathematics.
Attracted by Houston's diversity, he came to Rice University in 1970,
earned tenure two years later and set about making his department the
No. 1 math sciences department in the nation for graduating women and
minority PhDs. A few years ago, he became the first native-born Hispanic
to be elected into the prestigious National Academy of Engineering.
Toss any stereotypes you may have of staid or solitary and Unabomber-
prone mathematicians, Tapia wins fans with his down-to-earth talks to
third-graders and merengue-dancing parties for students at his family's
"He's incredible, isn't he?" bubbles Margaret Wright, president of the
Society of Industrial and Applied Mathematics, an international
organization of 9,000 PhDs.
"He's just such a life force. He's really amazing. I regard him as an
amazing resource for this country. I really do."
His perpetual energy comes despite hardship. His wife, Jean, has
suffered from multiple sclerosis since 1978. Once a professional dancer,
she now teaches people with disabilities how to exercise. In 1982, the
couple's daughter, 21-year-old Circee was killed by a drunken driver.
The choices you have are continuing or not continuing," Tapia says
simply. "When tragedy or failure comes into your life, either it breaks
you or it makes you stronger."
The couple has a 27-year-old son, a part-time student and former member
of local rock bands Fleshmop and The Trolls, and a 12-year-old adopted
daughter who attends the Rice School.
Tapia likes to brag on Houston when he travels. "Houston is perfect from
the diverse point of view," he says. "It's one-third brown, one-third
black and one-third white. Houston has diversity, and we do it better
than anyone else in the country."
Unfortunately, he says, the rest of the country doesn't always embrace
him and his "traveling roadshow" of minority grad students. "There are
small towns in Texas that still believe African-American or Mexican-
American students don't belong at Rice," Tapia says.
So, until more people understand that "mathematics is beautiful" and
until more kids realize their skin color doesn't predict their future,
Tapia plans to keep on teaching and preaching his gospel.
"I have to give back as much as I got. If I got this much, then I have
to give back double. I would be very happy if, at the end, that's what
my students say they learned from Richard Tapia," he says. "My leverage
effect has to go through the students. It has to go through the people I
touch because I can't touch enough people."