National Medal of Science Winner: On Math, Drag Racing, Family Rice University mathematician and researcher Richard Tapia is among seven recipients of the nation's highest honor in science, the National Medal of Science. Tapia, the son of Mexican immigrants, has been a longtime champion of diversity in education. He speaks with NPR's Michel Martin about winning the award, and his family.
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Medal Recipient Champions Diversity In Mathematics

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Medal Recipient Champions Diversity In Mathematics

Medal Recipient Champions Diversity In Mathematics

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I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Every year, the National Medal of Science is awarded by the President of the United States to those who have made outstanding contributions to science and engineering. It is this country's highest honor for those in those fields.

This year, one of the prestigious awards goes to Rice University Professor Richard Tapia. He is a professor of applied mathematics whose work is widely recognized for a technique he helped develop called numerical optimization. Big industries like airlines use it to predict an optimized output. But apart from his own work, this son of Mexican immigrants has also been recognized for bringing more Hispanic and African-American students into graduate-level science, technology, engineering and mathematics. He was also named one of the 20 most influential leaders in math education by the National Science Foundation.

And Professor Tapia is with us now. Welcome, and congratulations.

RICHARD TAPIA: Thank you. I appreciate it.

MARTIN: You've won many awards, and I was just wondering: What was your reaction to this one? Just another thing to put on a shelf or...

TAPIA: No, no, no, no.

MARTIN: ...does it have some special meaning?

TAPIA: No, no, no. Special meaning. None at all. Okay. So I've won a lot of awards and, you know, I look at them in a very objective fashion. But this is not a dream come true to me, because I never dreamt that I would win this award. And I said, wow, this takes me to the top. I'm very humbled when I look at the list of the names of people who have won this award: Michael Debakey, Norbert Wiener.

It's just, wow, look at those people. I know that I deserve the feeling, okay, the feeling of being happy and all that thing. Do I deserve to be there? That's different. But I deserve the feeling, and I'm enjoying it and I'm walking on air. I don't know how long it's going to last, but I'm going to try to make it last as long as I can.


MARTIN: Well, good for you. That sounds very rational to me. Let's just go back to the beginning. What drew you to math and science?

TAPIA: Okay. You know, you can say I studied this and - no. But it's not true. I grew up being very good in math. So I took what's called the path of least resistance. I said I'm going to do something that I'm good at. Okay? And even though we lived in a tough part of town, even the tough people in the neighborhood would recognize me for being good in math.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting, because one often does not hear that story with all groups, I mean, particularly African-Americans and Hispanics. You know, the stereotype is that it's all about, you know, racing cars, playing basketball and the people who do intellectual work are not as esteemed by the community as people who do other things. That was not your experience.

TAPIA: No, no, no.

MARTIN: And I just want to clarify for folks who - just a little bit. You know, your mother came from Mexico to California when she was 11. Your father came when he was seven.

TAPIA: Yeah.

MARTIN: Your father completed high school. Your mom did not.

TAPIA: That's right.


TAPIA: So the neighborhood - sure.

MARTIN: So it's not like you came from a family of two professors, where it was all expected that this was what was going to happen.

TAPIA: No, no, no, no, no. Not in any way. In fact, the neighborhood - you know, they recognized me. My brother and I raced cars and did things, and they wanted to give me this recognition. They didn't see it as somebody that was so far away from them. I lived in so many dimensions and did so many things. So in some sense, they were saying, well, we're going to honor and respect this person who's like us. Okay? But that didn't mean that everybody else wanted to be like that.

I mean, they respected and they gave me my things, but it wasn't clear until later on that I became a professor that I started pulling maybe community youth into saying this is a good thing. This is a good thing. And I'll tell you, Michel, one of the things that helps me - I have a talk called "Math is Cool." And so I talk to inner city youth and I say, look, you can really use math for neat things. And I use them to study cars. Or I have a talk called "Math at Top Speed," where we study the mathematics of drag racing. And my son used to BMX a lot, and we do the mathematics in BMX.

And so I can say to these kids, math is cool. Math is cool. It isn't that - you can be like me, and we can all look at these neat, neat things.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're speaking with the winner of the latest National Medal of Science, Rice University Professor Richard Tapia. He's an award-winning researcher and a longtime champion of diversity in education.

You are the first - I don't know if you prefer Latino or Hispanic. I don't know if you care. You don't care?

TAPIA: It doesn't matter. Either way. Either way.

MARTIN: The first Latino or Hispanic elected to the National Academy of Engineering. That was in 1992. Do you feel - what's the word - a special responsibility to be a role model?

TAPIA: I do.


TAPIA: I do. See, being the first Hispanic to - you know, domestic-born Hispanic elected to the National Academy, to me, was bittersweet. The sweet part was that I was the first. The bitter part was that it took so long. Why did it take so long, or why so few of us? Okay. So I have those mixed feelings.

So one of the things that we do as role models is we look to youth, and they look at us. Okay? But I want to be a role model on the other side. The flip side is that the majority community can look at people like us and say quality comes in all flavors. That's the key issue.

...look at us, OK. But I want to be a role model on the other side. The flip side is that the majority community can look at people like us and say, quality comes in all flavors. That's the key issue. So when I'm on the National Science Board – I was appointed by President Clinton to the National Science Board - my job there is to do a good job and have everybody on the board say Richard Tapia is an important member of this committee, therefore, more people like Richard Tapia should be on this committee.

MARTIN: You know, though, I wanted to ask you about that, because you have been lauded equally for your own academic work, as well as for being a profound teacher and a role model and mentor to students.

TAPIA: Sure.

MARTIN: In fact, I believe it is the case that in math and engineering, you are noted as having directed more students from underserved minority groups in higher-level mathematics and engineering than anybody else in the country, at this point. Rice University professor David Leebron has lauded you for helping students from underserved minorities - underrepresented minorities - let's say that...

TAPIA: Right. Right.

MARTIN: ...succeed in these fields. One of your Indian students once wrote in your evaluation that you make us feel equally good.

TAPIA: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: One of the reasons I'm bringing this up is that it has been said that one of the issues for minorities in education is that they are so much expected to, and relied upon, by students for that kind of emotional support that they sometimes neglect their own work...

TAPIA: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...and don't get a chance to do that higher-level work.

TAPIA: Yeah.

MARTIN: And so I'm curious how you balanced the two.

TAPIA: Those are really good comments. I never intended - that wasn't my plan. My plan was to be a mathematician and my wife's plan was to be a dancer, and go forward. But then I saw some things happening and I saw the way people were sometimes, as you said, you know, been trying and they would neglect their own profession. So when I accepted the plan, I said, I'm going to establish myself as a scientist first, and I got tenured very fast. So after I was in a stable position, I said, now I can help so many people that are similarly situated - people who could fall through cracks the way I almost fall through a crack. OK, I almost... I am now in a position to help those because I understand the road, I understand them and I understand what they need.

Now in mathematics, we tend to be self-proclaimed keepers - gatekeepers of quality and we don't suffer fools. So it's very easy, in mathematics, for somebody to come back and be kind of destroyed by a professor because of the comments. So a couple of comments to somebody, you're very good, have you considered going to graduate school, positive comments, OK, has really been very, very, very helpful. So I think I accepted the responsibility because there were not enough people doing it, and I could do it, I could do it.

MARTIN: There's one other thing I wanted to ask you about balancing responsibilities, if it's okay that I'm asking you. You're also, you know, this is a question we often ask women, right?


MARTIN: We don't often ask men, but I think we should ask the men.

TAPIA: Yeah. Sure.

MARTIN: How do you balance your home responsibilities as well, because you are a husband and a father. And is it acceptable that I point out that your wife has a difficult challenge?

TAPIA: But, of course. But, of course.

MARTIN: She's diagnosed with multiple sclerosis - that she uses a wheelchair. And then your daughter, you lost your daughter in a car accident. So you've had some heavy responsibilities at home as well. Do you mind if I ask how you've managed that?

TAPIA: But, of - no, of course not. That's important to me. That's who I am. I find that I'm very personal. I mean, I will share my stories with students and with anybody about, because that's who I am. That's how I'm different. OK. So a lot of my colleagues will say well, I'm going to talk to the students about science. I'll talk about the things that that person needs to hear, whatever adversity has come up. So when I give talks, like I give commencement addresses a lot, I say, on the left side I can list all the successes that I have - huge number of successes. OK, you know, on the right side, all the failures and adversity that I've had to deal with, and that's just as much a part of me as the successes. And, you know, you don't have to publish those. You don't have to put them in newspapers.

But having my daughter killed 29 years ago when she was a student at Rice University, at the age of 21, then my wife who was, you know, a dancer, and then going through multiple sclerosis - those things are very, very difficult and that is part of me. So it's - when people say to me, how do you deal with those things? I say, I have no choice. I mean the choice is to give up or keep going and that's what Jean and I continue to do.

Sure, you know, when I think back right now being here in Washington for this award, I figured that my daughter - Circee, my late daughter - would have been so happy to have seen this, OK. Now my mother, who died three years ago, I mean it would've been the greatest thing. Her dream was to come to this country for education, and she had to go to work because she came by herself and nobody to (unintelligible) her.

But the things that I want to share with you is that Jean, in a wheelchair, we came in yesterday. Now last night, I tried to dress her and give her shower and help her and she was very tired, and she slipped on the floor, and I had to call emergency help. And so last night at midnight we had two or three people and we were getting Jean off the floor, dressing her. But that doesn't stop us from coming here. And her day is going to be Friday when she meets President Obama. So you don't stop, you keep going. So that every day of my life I'm aware of the death of Circee, I'm aware of Jean's limitations in terms of the wheelchair. But I will say this, she travels more than anybody in the country in a wheelchair. We've gone to Spain, we've gone to Italy, we've gone to France, we've gone to Mexico, we go to Puerto Rico. She is here.

And last night she looked at me and she said, Richard, I'm so sorry that I'm causing all these problems. And I said, we have it no other way and we're going. And after I got her up and I got her dressed, we went out to dinner. And then when we got back she said, that was a great dinner. I really feel good. And that's what's going to be tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day, and the next day. Whatever the lot is, I live it to the fullest and I live it to the best and that's what Jean says, day-to-day. So every day she says, thank you, thank you. And I says Jean, this is something that I'm going to do. You don't have to thank me every day. And she says, but I want to thank you. You take the good and the bad together and make the best out of it.

So that's why in some sense, earlier Michel, I said I don't know if I deserve to be in this category with all these wonderful, fantastic people. But I do deserve the feeling that I have from winning, the feeling of enjoyment, the feeling of being there, I deserve it. Now, you know, the category itself, it's totally humbling how many wonderful people have won this thing. But, it's been - my mother, if my mother was alive, she'd say, see Richard, I told you it was going to happen.


MARTIN: Richard Tapia is university professor at Rice. He is a longtime champion of diversity in education. He's receiving the National Medal of Science from President Obama tomorrow, and he was kind enough to fit us in somehow enjoin us here in our Washington, D.C. studio. Thank you, Professor Tapia, and congratulations.

TAPIA: Oh, no, it's been a pleasure and thank you, okay. Thank anybody who will listen to my story.

MARTIN: If you want to learn more about Richard Tapia and the National Medal of Science, please go to, click on the Program's tab and then on TELL ME MORE.

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