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By the Numbers

It All Adds Up for Math Prof Richard Tapia
Source: Houston Chronicle, April 25, 1996
By Cheryl Laird

Houston Chronicle

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 Westbury-area home.

"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."

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