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richard tapia

Richard A. Tapia, PhD

I was born in Los Angeles, California and I have a twin brother, two younger sisters, and one younger brother. I inherited a Native American face and straight black hair, which makes me wonder where my roots lie. My mother believes we may have ancestral ties to the Tarahumara Indians in Chihuahua. I learned from my mother and father, who are both from Mexico, many important things – good work habits, belief in yourself, pride in who you are, respect for others, and sensitivity to their needs. My mother taught me that you can do anything that you want; you just have to stay determined and not give up. There was nothing that was going to prevent my mother from achieving her goal once she set her mind to it.
When I was in school, I was always a good student, despite the problems which existed in the community. Our difficulties were similar to what youth face today. Many of my friends got involved in drugs or dropped out of school. Often, the counselors at school had low expectations for us, and did not give us advice on how to obtain the best possible education. However, from the first grade on, my brother and I did very well in math. When we wanted to, we could do well in other courses too. I think my love for mathematics may have come from the Mayas, one of the first civilizations to deeply understand mathematics and astronomy.
When we were in junior high and high school, my twin brother and I had one very strong outside interest. We were very mechanically inclined, and built cars for racing. We discovered our talents one day when my family’s car wouldn’t start. My brother and I took it apart and fixed it. After that time, we worked for free at different auto body shops and garages, learning as much as we could about cars. When we were fifteen, we built a 1932 Ford street roadster and raced it at local drag strips. We soon held many local records. In 1968 we set a world record for elapsed time for fuel dragsters!
Before going to a four-year college, in high school I was never told that a four-year college was an option so I attended Harbor Junior College in Wilmington, California. At junior college, my mathematical talents were noticed, and I was encouraged to apply to the University of California, Los Angeles. After earning my degree in mathematics at UCLA, I designed ships for a year at Todd Shipyards. Then I went on to graduate school. During this time my wife and I did not have a lot of money, for the first few years I supported myself. Eventually, because I was doing well, I did receive support from the department of mathematics and the Office of Naval Research.
I had planned to work for industry after completing my doctorate, but many of my professors felt that I would make a good researcher and teacher; so I decided to pursue a university career. After my postdoctoral fellowship in applied math at the University of Wisconsin, I accepted a position at Rice University in Houston, Texas. I chose Rice because of its excellent mathematics programs, and Houston because of its excellent racial diversity. Today, I am Noah Harding Professor of Computational and Applied Mathematics. Some of my job duties include teaching mathematics and science to college students, writing books, doing research, and working with the community. When I made my career choice, I knew I wanted to reach out to underrepresented groups, especially Hispanics. I wanted to show minority students that if they really want to do something, they can. I believe I can improve minorities’ participation in science and mathematics. However, in order to do this, I have to serve as a role model by first being an excellent scientist. In 1992, I was elected to the prestigious National Academy of Engineering, the first native-born Hispanic ever to receive this recognition. In 1996, President Clinton appointed me to serve on the National Science Board, and in 1996 I won a Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics, Science, and Engineering Mentoring, and in 1998, I won the American Association for the Advancement of Science Mentor-Lifetime Achievement Award. I want to tell minority students that they must not close their eyes to the possibility of a career in science or mathematics. If we do, we will never be able to influence the future of this country. By the way, my love for cars is still alive and well, and is shared by my family. We own and show two 1957 Chevys and a 1970 Chevelle SS with a 1996 Corvette LT4 engine. Recently, the Chevelle won every show in which it was entered. It is truly a beautiful car!