Hitting the Highway with Mathematician Dr. Richard Tapia
by Rachel Barron
Originally published in Sacnas News, Fall 1999,
Volume 3, No. 3
On the road to the future of science education, Richard Tapia, proud family man and Noah Harding Professor at Rice University, drives in style. His '57 Chevy is just one of the eight classic cars that he has restored and shows around the country.
Switching gears, Tapia's true claim to fame is his ability to work numbers.
A computational and applied mathematician by trait, Tapia is one of the nation's leading researchers in the area of computational optimization. Recently he has been delving into interior-point methods - effective algorithms for solving colossal problems in science, industry, and business - for linear programming.
Tapia runs his life like his cars, full throttle. In addition to a professorship at Rice, Tapia is the university's associate director for Minority Affairs in the Office of Graduate Studies and director of Education and Human Resources for the Center for Research on Parallel Computation. Outside of academia Tapia serves as a Clinton appointee on the National Science Board.
In a talk that will mix slang with math theorems, Tapia will give the keynote address "Some Mathematical Insights into Car and Bicycle Racing" at this year's SACNAS National Conference. "It's going to be personal. I am going to take a trip back through time," says Tapia about the speech he has reved up for the Society's annual meeting. "Before everyone gets scared about the math, I'm going to show a personal video. It has my entire family: wife, twin brother, son, daughters, cousins, aunts and uncles. I am going to go all the way back into my youth and use this video to demonstrate how math helped me improve my car racing and how math helped me improve my son when he was racing bikes."
In spite of his self-declared inability to separate the personal from the professional, Tapia views the integration of his family videos into his keynote as a hook for his audience's attention. While unfolding his passionate history with cars, he will guide his audience towards an explanation of how math has helped him understand the phenomenon of racing and the solutions that provided the winning second advantage. Using simple mathematical principles, Tapia's discussion will include a mathematical justification that dragsters are traveling faster than their recorded speeds, misconceptions about tire and wheel geometry, and fair lane assignment in BMX bicycle racing.
A special component to his keynote address will discuss women who rip up the race track. "I am also going to hold a section in my presentation when I show that drag racing has been one of the only professional sports, I guess if you can call it a professional sport, where women have been just as successful as men."
Tapia makes it a point to take his profession on the road. Averaging 50-100 talks in one given year, Tapia greets crowds with various topics from the marvels of math to the need for minorities and women to take their place in all aspects of the nation's sciences. "It's a wonderful opportunity to send my message of inclusivity. Inclusiveness, everyone can play," says Tapia.
Getting minorities and women into graduate education is another specialty of Tapia's. He has helped increase the number of minority graduate students at Rice University in applied mathematics from 5% in 1985 to a current 38%. "It was not by accident," says Tapia. "I worked very hard." Recalling his efforts to equalize gender in the university's applied mathematics graduate program Tapia says, "It took seven to eight years to raise women's enrollment to 50%." Today, women comprise 53% of the program.
His high octane optimism does not stop him from sharing some cutting sentiments concerning U.S. sciences. "I don't sell that for science to continue women and minorities must be included because it's not true. Science will continue."
Tapia believes that society, not science, will suffer from the lack of minorities and women in science careers. "Technology and industry are the backbone of our society. It's important that minorities and women are involved in the decision making. If not, the health of the nation will die."
Tapia believes that for great scientists to succeed, they first must flourish as people. He suggests that urban epicenters set the pace for the country, and notes we should be mindful of trends that spawn in the cities. One of his great pains is to witness the nation's effect on children. "We have a loss of civility and sensitivity," says Tapia. He suggests that the messages being sent by TV, media, and music discourages amenity. "It's in the language," says Tapia about the media's offerings to society. "It's not the sex or violence, that doesn't bother me," says Tapia. "It's the lack of civility. Kids emulate it. You can see it in the way they talk to each other."
Determination is a huge force behind Tapia's actions. When asked what fuel he uses to drive his life, Tapia explains, "I always want to be doing something. Even if I wasn't a mathematician, I would still be doing something. I was raised that way. If I find I have a moment, I might go build a car."
With the pedal to the metal, Tapia hits the nation's scientific highway. And he hopes to leave marks on route. "It doesn't matter if I was alive or not," says Tapia. "It's that while I was here I made a difference."
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