UCLA Division of Physical Sciences
Commencement Address
June 21, 1998

The Civic Scientist: Participation in National Agenda Issues
Richard Tapia


Thank you Dean Peccei, administration, faculty, UCLA graduating students, family, and friends. It is indeed an honor and a great pleasure to be here with you today to share this unique and important day and also to share some of my thoughts. Yes, today is a time for celebration, but it is also a time for reflection. Reflection must play a role in constructing your road ahead. It is befitting that today is father's day. I will seize the moment and give you, the graduates, some fatherly advice and challenges. First I congratulate you on your accomplishment. We are all very proud of you. You are here today in part because of your own efforts and in part because of your support system-your family, your friends, the faculty. Both are very important. I have learned many things in my life, including that in all successes there is a support system in the background, and graduation is an opportunity to formally acknowledge your support system by allowing them to share with you the joy and satisfaction of your accomplishments.

Thirty years ago when I received my PhD from UCLA, I chose not to participate in the graduation ceremonies. It was a mistake, as my wife of 39 years has been telling me constantly for the past thirty years. I view today as a much needed chance to redeem myself. This I will do by becoming an honorary member of the UCLA class of 1998. I am pleased that my mother, my wife, my aunt, and my uncle who all played major supportive roles in my undergraduate and graduate days at UCLA are here in the audience with us today. Unfortunately my father passed away 15 years ago, but I know that he too is someplace somewhere proud and smiling. I thank them all for their generous and unselfish support throughout the years.

UCLA is truly one of the great educational institutions of the world. Your UCLA education will serve you well. You have been well prepared. However, this preparation only takes you to yet another starting place; you must chose your direction, take the first step, and follow through. You have been given a fine set of tools, what you construct with them is up to you. Success or failure will not be dependent on your education, but on what you do with this education after you leave UCLA. Your future is in your hands, plan and pursue it well.

The road ahead is extremely unpredictable and challenging. You will see that it consists of stretches of smooth road separated by obstacles. Often these obstacles can be quite large. Yes, luck will play a role, it is a formal part of every stochastic process. Realize that tragedy and failure are as much a part of life as are triumph and success. Failure is a part of every successful person's life. You must learn to grow from your failures and to develop compassion, and sensitivity from your tragedies. You will be recognized for your successes. Use your successes as an opportunity to reach back and out for those who can benefit from your help.

My wife Jean and I were married when I was a sophomore at UCLA. Our daughter Circee was born when I was a junior. The three of us grew up together. We didnšt have much of material value, but life was very good. Jean's passion was professional dance. She danced with the Pacific Ballet of Santa Monica and in numerous Hollywood and TV shows. Influenced by both her mother's and father's activities it was natural for our daughter Circee to develop a passion for dance and for academics. Our son Richard was born in 1968, the year of my PhD. He too was influenced by his mother's and father's worlds. In 1970 we moved to Houston when I joined the faculty of Rice University. Jean started and operated one of the more successful dance schools in Houston. Circee graduated from The High School for the Performing and Visual Arts with honors in both dance and academics. She spent her freshman year here at UCLA in dance, and I am told that she was one of the rare freshmen to dance the lead role in UCLA's major dance production. After one year Circee went to New York and danced professionally there for two years. She then returned to Houston and to Rice University to study computer science. Our road was quite smooth. Jean, Circee, Richard, and I were all experiencing more than our share of successes.

Major obstacles next appeared. In 1978 Jean was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and in 1979 with myasthenia gravis. She had to give up her dance school. Today she is confined to a wheelchair. Three years later in 1982 Circee was killed in an automobile accident in Houston. A young driver on drugs ran a red light and hit her car. Often my wife and I are asked, how can you deal with these tragedies? Our reply is that we didn't know that we had a choice. We canšt throw back the hand that we were dealt and ask for a reshuffle and a new deal. We must play the one we were dealt as well as possible. Jean has shown strength that I never knew that she had. There is no doubt that the necessity for this strength forced its development. These tragedies have put us in an elite group prepared to better understand and reach out to others and to truly value all that life has to offer. There have been numerous successes along the way. In 1983 our daughter Becky came into our lives. Becky and Richard have given us many moments to be proud of and enjoy as a family. We live life to its fullest and appreciate each and every day. I ask the following of you. At each stage of your life and career continue to dream and hope that all your dreams will come true, but if they don't or you encounter obstacles along the way, then realize that what you have is still good, indeed it is very very good. Learn to look both ways. Your challenge is how you handle and learn from adversity, prosperity is quite easy to handle.

I implore you to become what my colleague Neal Lane, former Director of the National Science Foundation and now Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, calls the civic scientist. The scientist who cares about, and works toward, the solution of current critical societal and educational problems. I will now touch briefly on what I consider to be three critical national agenda issues: K-12 education, underrepresentation, and violence among our youth.

Accessible quality K-12 public education is the backbone of a healthy nation. For years America has taken pride in its public education system. Our top students have always been among the very best internationally. However, those of us in post-secondary education have had reason to question our K-12 public education system in recent years. Now TIMSS, The Third International Mathematics and Science Study, and other indicators give us formal reinforcement for these feelings. The alarming and disturbing news is that our secondary students in science and math rank well below the international average. Even our best, those taking advanced placement calculus, rank below the international average in mathematics; while those taking Advanced Placement Physics ranked at the very bottom internationally in physics. When our best are no longer competitive, we must seriously question our public educational system. Yes, I am very aware that out graduate education system is the envy of the scientific world, and rightfully so. It is so not because of our K-12 system, but in spite of our K-12 system. We are a nation of very resilient, bold, and creative people. Our history shows this to be true. Witness the numerous technical contributions that have been made by individuals with only a modest formal education. However, today as our technical world becomes more sophisticated and complicated, more formal education is required to maintain the same level of creativity and the same standard of living. A cover article in last Sunday's New York times entitled "Benefits Dwindle Along With Wages for the Unskilled" states that not only is the gap widening between unskilled and skilled workers in terms of wages, but also in terms of benefit s, quality of work life, and job security. As citizens, parents, and scientists we must support and work with our K-12 public education system and also hold it accountable when it fails. Our deterioration is a direct consequence of developing and maintaining a fragmented K-12 educational system. It is imperative that we intersect the various components and work together in a more cohesive and structured fashion. We say our children are failing, when in reality we are failing our children.

My mother and father, came from Mexico to Los Angeles as young children following their dreams and in search of educational opportunities. However they were essentially on their own and times were tough. These educational dreams had to be realized through their children. There are five of us and of the five, four have graduate degrees; albeit two of us are lawyers. Accessible quality public education played a fundamental role in these successes. Quality public education for all has been and must continue to be one of America's major strengths. My mother instilled in us the belief that through education you can do what ever you want. As a youth I often told her that that was such a naive belief. Today I see that she was right. If you don't already know, you will soon learn that mothers are always right.

I am proud to be a product of the great state of California and of its public education system. Born in Los Angeles the child of immigrant parents, I attended Los Angeles Unified School System, earned an Associate Arts degree from Harbor community college in Wilmington, next earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from UCLA in mathematics and then I went on to the faculty of several prestigious universities and considerable national involvement.

In my days California set the standards for accessible quality public education. During these times UCLA played a premier leadership role in producing students from underrepresented groups. There is no doubt that today as I return home I feel a sense of disappointment as I see that the Golden State is no longer what I knew it to be in terms of public education. Today, California and Texas, states that have played strong national leadership roles and states with large populations of members of education ally underrepresented groups, face unprecedented challenges that endanger the very essence of the American educational dream. California and Texas are now in a position of either leading the nation in creative and innovative solution of these complex problems or leading the nation down a path that will continue to endanger the health of the nation. By its position of eminence within the state, the University of California will play a key role in this choice.

In a frenzied search for a quick fix we have taken the easy way out and have let the standardized test become the tail that wags the dog of equitable accessibility. We have fallen into the trap of valuing what we measure instead of the more difficult task of learning how to measure what we value. We are very aware that both science and scientists are multidimensional; yet we are content to let a one-dimensional evaluation tool play such a dominant role. We must evaluate the evaluation tool and produce a tool that is in alignment with the desired end product. Underrepresentation in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology endangers the health of the nation and not the health of these professions. The health of these professions will be maintained, as has been done historically, through importation. Today the domestic student joins the ranks of the underrepresented. No first world nation can maintain its economic health when such a large part of its population is outside mainstream activity including all technological, scientific, and computational activity. The greatest internal threat to this country is the formation of a permanent underclass. Accessible quality education is our best hope at prevention. Institutions like UCLA which produce leaders, must play a role in producing leaders from all segments of the population; otherwise there is a danger of forming disjoint cycles that do not intersect. Separate but equal is always separate, but rarely equal.

In the past decade or so we have witnessed an unprecedented amount of violence and crime on the part of youths of a surprisingly young age. Some might argue that the number of crimes is not that much different, than what it was years back. I argue that what shocks us today is the magnitude of the violence and the frequency of killings. These crimes are not restricted to the barrios and ghettos, nor to the cities, nor to bad students.

What is common in the experiences of today's youth is that exposure to extreme violence and killing is commonplace in the entertainment media of today. We must realize that our model of society is flawed and deficient and does not address the needs of con temporary youth-the need to belong, the need to be respected and appreciated, and the need to overcome feelings of inferiority, anger, and anxiety. Multiple-victim shootings in our schools over the past 9 months have left 15 people dead and over 50 wounded. Again last Sunday's New York times carried the front page story entitled "From Adolescent Angst to the Shooting Up of Schools". We must evaluate the role that we are letting society play and take back our youth.

America strongly needs your leadership and participation in the solution of these difficult problems. You may say that we have left you with these problems, and I would answer that this is true. But we can't redeal the hand, your challenge is to play well what you have been dealt. The future of the nations scientific and societal health is in your hands. Many of you will distinguish yourselves with prestigious awards and recognition, including a possible Nobel Prize or a Field's Medal. This will be of significant value to America's scientific health and prestige. But this alone will not be enough, you must all play the role of the civic scientist. It is not someone else's job, it is ours. It is not someone else's society, it is ours.

Finally, I ask you to not forget that at the very center of your highly complex technological and scientific world are people. People that need you, and people that you need, reach out and touch them on a regular basis. Your support system succeeded. It is now your turn to become a part of someone elsešs support system.

Good luck and Thank you.



Minoriy & Outreach VitaeMain Š2004 Richard Tapia - updated 01/20/2004 • maintained by Hilena Vargas (hvargas@rice.edu)