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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 minorities.

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.

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