The White House announced today that Richard Tapia, a Rice University mathematician and longtime champion of diversity in U.S. education, will receive the National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama.
The medal is the highest national honor for a U.S. scientist, but it won’t be the first White House honor for Tapia. He received the inaugural Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring in 1996, the same year he earned a presidential appointment to the National Science Board, the nation’s highest scientific governing body.
“This National Medal of Science is wonderful recognition of someone who has had tremendous influence and dedication both in his field and beyond,” Rice President David Leebron said. “Richard is an extraordinary scientist and a great mathematician, but he’s also had a much bigger impact on the world.
“He’s helped make Rice a more diverse university, and he is recognized across the country as the person who has helped countless students, particularly Hispanic and African-American students, overcome obstacles and succeed in graduate studies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.Â Many of these students now carry on his legacy at some of our great universities.”
Tapia joined Rice’s faculty in 1970. He is a University Professor — Rice’s highest rank — and the Maxfield-Oshman Professor in Engineering and a professor of computational and applied mathematics. He is also director of Rice’s Center for Excellence and Equity in Education.
The son of Mexican immigrants, Tapia grew up in Los Angeles and was the first member of his family to attend college. He excelled in math and science and went on to earn international acclaim for his research into numerical optimization methods, and that success led to his election to the National Academy of Engineering. Tapia has authored or co-authored two books and more than 100 mathematical research papers, and he is currently authoring a graduate-level textbook on the foundations of optimization.
“I never thought that this would happen,” Tapia said. “I am extremely honored. When I look at the list of the mathematicians, computer scientists and statisticians that have won the National Medal of Science, I’m totally humbled. The names on the list are just phenomenal.”
Tapia has directed or co-directed more underrepresented minority and women doctoral students in mathematics than anyone else in the country. Due partly to his influence, Rice’s Department of Computational and Applied Mathematics has graduated more than double the national average of both minority and female Ph.D. students for more than a decade.
Tapia’s dedication to mentoring and his outspoken support for diversity in education have earned him numerous awards, including the Lifetime Mentor Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science; the Distinguished Service to the Profession Award from the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics; the Distinguished Public Service Award from the American Mathematical Society; and the Distinguished Scientist Award from the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science. He is the first academician to be named Hispanic Engineer of the Year by Hispanic Engineer Magazine.
Neal Lane, the Malcolm Gillis University Professor and senior fellow in science and technology policy at Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, said the recognition of Tapia is well-deserved for his work in science and mentoring.
“Richard is being recognized for his work in optimization theory and numerical analysis as well as for his contributions to ensuring that women and underrepresented minorities can also have successful careers in mathematics and science,” said Lane, who is also former director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and science adviser to President Bill Clinton. “President Obama’s selection of Richard for this high honor underscores the importance the president places on education and diversity in science, mathematics, engineering and technology.”
Established in 1959, the National Medal of Science is awarded by the president in recognition of outstanding contributions to knowledge in the physical, biological, mathematical, engineering, behavioral and social sciences. Recipients are selected by a 12-member committee of scientists and engineers that is appointed by the president and administered by the NSF.
The medal has been awarded to 468 people. A database of past recipients since 1962 is available at http://www.nsf.gov/od/nms/recipients.cfm.
Other Rice faculty who have received the National Medal of Science include chemist Frederick Rossini, who was awarded the medal in 1976 by President Jimmy Carter for contributions to basic reference knowledge in chemical thermodynamics, and former Rice president and chemist Norman Hackerman, who was chairman of the Welch Foundation’s Scientific Advisory Board when he was presented the medal by President Bill Clinton in 1993 for his contributions to electrochemistry, higher education and science. Rice alumni who have received this honor include James Gunn ’61, who was presented the medal by Obama in 2009 for his design of many of the most influential telescopes and instruments in astronomy, and Dennis Sullivan ’63, who was presented the medal by President George W. Bush in 2004 for his work on algebraic topology, quantum field theory and string theory.
Tapia will receive the medal at a White House ceremony in October.