“I Must Help”
by David Medina
Originally published in Sallyport, October/November
1993, Volume 50, No. 2
Richard Tapia’s mission is to bring more minority students into science, engineering and mathematics classes.
At this year’s Cinco de Mayo celebration at West University Elementary School, Rice computational and applied mathematics professor Richard Tapia, wearing a blue suit and his trademark cowboy boots, spoke to students about the Hispanic presence in the United States.
His talk spilled over to the importance of studying mathematics and science, a topic that has the potential effect of sleeping pills. But Tapia masterfully handled the giddy young students who packed the school cafeteria, which had been decorated with Mexican flags.
He questioned his audience, praised the students’ comments and provided anecdotes and explanations that even a first grader could understand. He implored the students, especially those who were Hispanic or black, to pursue careers in science, engineering and mathematics.
“If we have more underrepresented minorities in these areas,” he explained, “we are going to improve the health of the nation.”
Tapia is widely recognized for his efforts to get more minorities into these high-paying, high-prestige fields. Of Mexican parentage himself, Tapia has built a successful career as a mathematician specializing in computational optimization. He is also an award-winning teacher at Rice University, where he is on the faculty of the computational and applied mathematics department.
Tapia believes that by helping minorities and women embark upon careers in science, engineering and math, the nation will eliminate many of its social ills and once again lead the world in technology. Of the 1,000 doctorates awarded in mathematical sciences in the United States last year, only two went to blacks and one to a Hispanic.
“If we continue to close our eyes to the option of going into math and science,” he says, “as Hispanics, as blacks, we are never going to be part of mainstream America, to take our rightful place, to control our destiny and to lead America.”
As part of his crusade, Tapia directs the Spend a Summer with a Scientist program, which is sponsored by the Rice Center for Research on Parallel Computation (CRPC). The program brings minority students to campus during the summer to assist a Rice faculty member with research. The experience is intended to interest students in science by exposing them to research firsthand.
In addition, Tapia established the Rice CRPC Mathematical and Computational Sciences Awareness Workshops in 1989. The workshops bring about 50 elementary and secondary school teachers from the Houston area to Rice each summer to visit with scientists, business professionals and educators. The purpose of the workshops is to make teachers aware of the many college and career opportunities in math and science available to minorities. Other universities are now emulating the program.
Lucille Barrera, a science teacher at West University Elementary School, attended the workshop in 1992.
“He is a dynamic speaker, very motivating and inspirational,” Barrera says of Tapia. “He doesn’t know the self-confidence he has given me. So much confidence that I’ve decided to go back to graduate school.”
In the meantime, Barrera teaches her students that they can become scientists and engineers. For the Cinco de Mayo celebration, Barrera had posters of Hispanic scientists hung in the halls at West University Elementary. She says the workshop inspired her with the idea.
Ed Dean, a mathematics professor at the University of Houston, attended Tapia’s West University talk to hear his former mentor speak. Dean, a Mexican American from New Mexico, received a Ph.D. in mathematical sciences from Rice in 1985. He credits Tapia with encouraging him to go to graduate school and, later, encouraging him to go into academia. Dean now lectures youngsters on the importance of a college education. At the Cinco de Mayo talk, he listened attentively.
“I wanted to spy on Tapia and borrow some of his lecturing techniques,” he explains.
Driving through South Texas or lecturing around the country, Tapia is always on the lookout for talented minority students. He recruited Monica Martinez to graduate school at Rice while attending Conference for the Society of the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science in San Antonio two years ago. Tapia talked to Martinez during a break in the meetings, while they were watching the Super Bowl with other conference participants.
The Stanford graduate came away deeply impressed with his commitment to students.
“He allowed me to feel an excitement for graduate school,” she says. “The fact that he listened and understood my needs to work in academia, and the fact that he did it during the Super Bowl, was something I’ve never experienced. I have a very high regard for him.”
Martinez is now a second-year graduate student in Rice's computational and applied mathematics department.
At Rice, Tapia wears the triple hats of professor computational and applied mathematics, associate director for Minority Affairs in the Office of Graduate Studies and director of Education and Human Resources for the Center for Research on Parall el Computation. In these roles, Tapia has been responsible for increasing the number of women and minorities studying mathematics and science at Rice.
In 1990, the National Research Council named Tapia one of the 20 most influential leaders in minority mathematics education in the country. Later that year, Tapia received the Hispanic Engineer National achievement Award for Education from the magazine Hispanic Engineer.
Last year, he became the first Mexican American be elected into the National Academy of Engineering, one of the highest honors that can be bestowed on a scientist. The academy noted his creative leadership in the mathematical and computer sciences and his contributions in computational mathematics.
Tapia is a specialist in linear and nonlinear programming. His research involves using computers and mathematics to solve large, complex classes of problems in science, engineering, economics and business. He focuses on developing algorithms that run effectively on the newest generation of parallel computers. Algorithms are step-by-step procedures for solving mathematical problems.
Traditional computers implement algorithms by completing each step in sequence, a time consuming process for very large problems. Today’s supercomputers have thousands of processors that work simultaneously to complete many steps at once. This allows the machine to handle much larger problems more quickly.
Tapia deals primarily with algorithms that are based on what are called “interior-point techniques.” This kind of algorithm represents an improvement over more conventional mathematical approaches to optimization. Interior-point techniques are specifically aimed at dealing with extremely large optimization problems.
Tapia is a dynamic and engaging teacher as well as a respected researcher.
“He is the only person I know,” says John Dennis, chair of the computer science department, “to receive a perfect teaching evaluation in a course primarily for undergraduates.”
Dennis describes how Tapia makes his students participate in the process of discovery. Often he will pose a question and then let the students carry the discussion on for days until they hit a blind alley. Tapia, who never lets on that he knows the answer, will come in one day and lead them step by step into the light.
“He's fantastic,” says graduate student Tony Kearsley. “He excels at transmitting ideas.” Kearsley came to Rice to pursue a Ph.D. in nonlinear optimization after he read Tapia’s research papers.
“One of his greatest strengths is that he is very open-minded,” says Kearsley. “He allows students to make mistakes, but he never makes you feel that you were wrong.”
Tapia, who won the George R. Brown Teaching Award for Superior Teaching in 1991, has often been compared to Jaime Escalante, the East Los Angeles math teacher portrayed in Stand and Deliver. In the movie, Escalante helps poor students climb over the barrio barriers and into college.
Tapia was born in a Los Angeles barrio in 1939 to parents who instilled in him a love for education. He has two sisters, a younger brother and a twin brother.
His mother Magda was 12 when she and a younger sister set out from the hills of Chihuahua, Mexico, for Los Angeles, where she stayed briefly with distant relatives. She had planned to get an education but was forced to drop out of high school to support herself. She lived with a Jewish family in exchange for doing household chores.
Tapia’s father Amado was 13 when he came from Nayarit in central Mexico with his mother and two brothers. After his mother died, he was taken in by a Japanese family that owned a nursery. During World War II, the Japanese family was sent to a relocation camp, and Amado (who speaks Japanese) was entrusted with the business. When the family returned, Amado was made a business partner. Eventually he started his own nursery.
Tapia says he learned from his father how to handle people and be aggressive without appearing to be aggressive. From his mother, he learned to be determined. “When she set a goal, there was nothing that was going to block her from achieving it,” he comments.
Tapia also inherited a native American face and straight black hair, a source of pride that makes him wonder where his roots lie. He felt closely aligned with the Zapotecs when he visited Oaxaca, Mexico, two years ago, but his mother believes there may be ancestral ties to the Tarahumara Indians in Chihuahua.
Tapia thinks his love for mathematics may have come from the Maya, the first civilization to grasp the concept of the number zero. From first grade on, Tapia and his brother Robert were math stars, despite their lack of role models. Robert is now CEO of a software company in the Silicon Valley in California.
In high school, when the mood allowed, the Tapia brothers did extremely well in their nonmath classes as well.
“If you look at our high school records on paper, neither one of us was a star,” Tapia says. “Yet I tell you, our talent was as good as anybody’s in that school. We were just not consistent, not smooth. We didn’t accept that being valedictorian was of any value. It was much more important to race cars.”
Cars were one of Tapia’s early passions. At 10, he and Robert saved $25 from their paper routes to buy a Model A, which they drove on their five-acre lot in Torrance. The Tapia family had moved to the suburbs after construction of a freeway forced them out of their home in the barrio.
One day when the car wouldn’t start, Tapia and Robert took it apart and fixed it, thus igniting their passion for revamping cars. They honed their skills working for free at auto body shops and garages. When they were 15, they built a 1932 Ford street roadster and raced it at local drag strips.
On February 13, 1968, the Tapia brothers set a world record in elapsed time for fuel dragster racing. Their Chrysler powered dragster sped through the quarter mile in 6.54 seconds. That same year, Tapia received his Ph.D. from the University of California at Los Angeles.
Tapia did not zoom through his education. After high school, he attended Harbor Junior College in Wilmington, California. He did not apply to a four-year college because he had not received proper guidance from his high school counselor. “No one in my family had ever gone to college, and I didn’t know I could go to a place like UCLA,” he says.
At Harbor, three professors noticed his mathematical talents and encouraged him to go to UCLA. Tapia transferred and received his bachelor’s degree in mathematics from UCLA in 1961. While an undergraduate, he married Jean Rodriguez, a ballet dancer. Their daughter Circee was born when he was a junior. They later had a son, Richard, now an undergraduate at the University of Houston and a rock and roll drummer.
Before continuing on to graduate school at UCLA, Tapia worked for a year and a half at Todd Shipyards, where he used IBM computers and mathematics to design ships. He had plans to work for IBM after completing his doctorate in mathematics, but the chairman of his department told him he had the potential to be a successful teacher and researcher. Tapia went on to do a postdoctorate in applied mathematics at the Mathematics Research Center at the University of Wisconsin.
He received job offers from several universities following his two-year stint at Wisconsin. He accepted a faculty position at Rice in 1970 because the university’s two-year-old mathematical sciences department offered him a chance to do research with outstanding colleagues. He also chose Rice because of Houston’s racial diversity.
“I wanted to be involved in outreach programs, working with Hispanics and blacks,” he says. “I didn’t want to go to an oasis.”
At Rice, Tapia’s career took off. Within two years he got tenure, and four years later he was made a full professor. In 1978, he became the chair of the mathematical sciences department (now the Department of Computational and Applied Mathematics), a position he held until 1983. In 1991, the year he received the George R. Brown Teaching Award, he was named Noah Harding Professor of Computational and Applied Mathematics.
While his career was advancing, Tapia suffered two tragedies in his personal life. Jean was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1978 and later with myasthenia gravis, both neurological diseases.
Forced to sell her Houston dance studio and experiencing bouts of depression, Jean decided to develop an exercise program specifically for multiple sclerosis patients. She now leads a class twice a week at St. Philip's Methodist Church, and her exercise program has been put into a video called Coming Back. For her work, she has received the Jefferson Award for Public Service and the Service to Mankind Award.
The second blow came in 1982, when Circee, 21, was killed in a car accident. The former Rice student was on her way to campus to practice with a dance group when a drunken driver ran a red light at Greenbriar and University streets and hit her car.
At Jean’s suggestion, Tapia worked to overcome his grief by returning to his number one hobby, cars. He bought a 1978 Datsun 28OZ and converted it into a showcase car that won first place 11 times in state competitions. He works on the 280Z and his two classic ’57 Chevys wearing a cowboy hat and listening to Tejano music. His “daily driver” is a 1970 Chevy muscle car.
Together, the Tapias have found solace in their son and in their daughter Becky, nine, whom they adopted in 1984. “I can go into a garage and look at cars for hours,” Tapia says. “The same with Becky. When I work with Becky on her schoolwork, I get this great satisfaction and stabilizing effect.”
For Tapia, helping others comes as naturally as his mathematical talent. It’s a need he must satisfy.
“I must help,” he explains. “I believe I can do some good in improving the situation with minorities being underrepresented in science and mathematics. I grew up in the barrios, in a hard-core area where 10 of my friends overdosed on heroin. I understand the youth, and I understand how important education is.”
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