Photo: Mexican-American mathematician Richard Tapia
Mexican-American mathematician Richard Tapia, recent recipient of the National Medal of Science, has dedicated his career to endowing women and minorities with scientific knowledge.
Tapia, who received the award last month from President Barack Obama, became one of the few Hispanics to receive it thanks to his dedication to stimulating the study of mathematics and science among the least represented students.
The Rice University professor always knew such an award existed but never dreamed of one day winning it, because he never saw himself on a level with the more than 450 people who have been so honored since the medal was created in 1959.
“It makes me proud and I take it as a compliment, with a great deal of humility, maybe because that’s the way my Mexican-American roots are, or how my mother brought me up, somewhat submissively and taking everything calmly,” Tapia told Efe in an interview.
Tapia is esteemed by colleagues as a man of science who has fought for his ideals, struggled to get ahead and to help his fellow man.
“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,” faculty colleague Neal Lane said.
Since Tapia assumed his position at Rice, the number of students belonging to ethnic minorities that have graduated from its school of science has doubled.
The son of Mexican immigrants, Tapia grew up in Los Angeles and became the first member of his family to go to college.
“My mom was 7 and my dad 11 when they came from Mexico, and they grew up talking about Mexico in a way than made the word sound like something beautiful - but it was definitely derogatory in the place I grew up,” Tapia recalled.
“I never heard anything good about Mexicans. People always said they stole cars, they didn’t study. There was an ideological conflict but it was my mother who took me to Mexico when I was 13 so I would understand where I came from,” he said.
Tapia knew then that he belonged to two cultures and chose the best of both.
“My mother made us believe that if we studied we could achieve anything we wanted. And she was right,” Tapia said.
To gain acceptance he had to deal with a host of obstacles in the course of his life, such as the day he won a math contest in high school and the teachers chose not to give him the prize in public as was customary - he was given the award out of sight in private instead.
“They didn’t want a Mexican to stand out and that’s something that hasn’t changed much today. What I want is the make everybody understand that they’re not going to look down on me because of the way I look, because I’m good at what I do and I can prove it,” he said.
Tapia was the first Latino named to the National Science Board, by President Bill Clinton in 1996.
In his personal life he has also dealt with some tough challenges, such his wife (a professional dancer) being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and the death of a daughter in a car crash.
“Who doesn’t like to receive prizes and honors? It’s encouraging, but the greatest satisfaction I’ve had is helping students when others won’t help them and refuse to forget about the color of their skin,” he said.