Tapia Featured in PBS 'Breakthrough'; Segment to Air April 22
Source: Rice News, April 18, 1996
By Lia Unrau
Rice News Staff
Mathematician Richard Tapia believes that by encouraging minorities to
seek careers in science and engineering, the United States can once
again be a world leader in technology.
"America can't maintain its first world status when such a large part of
the population is outside the mainstream activity," Tapia said in an
interview with the producers of a new television documentary about
minorities in science.
"A very important part of me and my mission is to serve as a role model
for as many people as I can," Tapia said. The special television
program, airing next week, will help.
"BreakThrough: The Changing Face of Science in America," a new six-part
documentary appearing on Public Broadcasting Service this month,
profiles 20 African American, Latino and Native American scientists and
engineers. Among them is Tapia, Noah Harding Professor of Computational
and Applied Mathematics.
"BreakThrough" is a production of Blackside, Inc., producers of "Eyes on
the Prize," "The Great Depression" and "America's War on Poverty."
"BreakThrough" chronicles the rewards and challenges of scientists of
color who are forging new ground in biology, astronomy, physics,
mathematics and other scientific disciplines.
The production crew spent six days with Tapia, filming him teaching and
providing outreach. They filmed him teaching at Rice, giving a lecture
to local grade school children, at a car club activity (he has a passion
for revamping cars) and even at home cheering on the Rockets with his
family and some Rice students.
When he has the opportunity to talk to people, he focuses on sharing the
opportunities that exist for minorities.
"The main purpose is to really communicate that there's someone like
them that's done these things," Tapia said. "I want them [young people]
to think I'm like them; I'm not special. I want to tell them, 'it can be
done, and you can do it.' "
Tapia, who was the first Mexican-American elected to the National
Academy of Engineers, specializes in numerical optimization. The
technique, which Tapia helped develop, creates mathematical models that
allow companies to predict and optimize output.
In addition to being an award-winning professor at Rice, Tapia also
directs the Spend a Summer with a Scientist program, sponsored by the
Rice Center for Research on Parallel Computation (CRPC), which brings
minority students to campus during the summer to assist a faculty member
with research. He also established the CRPC Mathematical and
Computational Sciences Awareness Workshops, which teach elementary and
secondary teachers about opportunities in math and science for
Tapia travels around the country giving lectures to students, professors
and professional organizations about the importance of training,
recruiting and encouraging young minorities to pursue advanced work in
math and science.
"It's extremely important to show the competency of underrepresented
minorities," Tapia said. "We, underrepresented minorities, can do
anything, and we can excel in the end."
The broadcast of "BreakThrough" is well timed, according to Tapia, as it
follows soon after the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal's decision
banning affirmative action in college admissions at institutions
receiving federal funding.
"The timing is outstanding," he said. "With the death, or criticism, of
affirmative action, with the, quote, anger of the white male, it's
extremely important to show strong and bold contributions and activities
from underrepresented minorities. It's extremely important for people of
color to be a productive part of the mainstream, and for our country to
see people of color excel in science."
"I want people to understand that we, people of color, have much to give
that matches others' [contributions], and in understanding and breadth,
could surpass them. Now that's a bold statement, but I really feel that.
We as scientists of color can give in dimensions that scientists don't
normally give in."
The series is significant, Tapia says, because it can provide increased
understanding among Americans.
"It isn't just for youth, it is for the nation to see what we have to
give and how well we do it."
Major funding for the series was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan
Foundation. Additional funding was provided by the National Science
Foundation and the Intel Foundation.
The first four segments of the series aired on April 8 and 15. The last
two segments will air April 22 at 8 and 9 p.m. on KUHT Channel 8. "A
Delicate Balance" is the title of the 9 p.m. installment, which features
Tapia and two other individuals in mathematics and computer science.
To promote the series, KUHT's "Week Night Edition," a local program on
PBS, will also feature Tapia. That program will air on Channel 8 on
April 18 at 5:30 p.m.