Tapia receives AAAS’ Public Engagement with Science Award

Rice U. mathematician recognized for scholarship, mentoring, public outreach

Rice University computational mathematician Richard Tapia has won the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s 2016 AAAS Public Engagement with Science Award.

The honor specifically recognizes Tapia’s “remarkable career blending world-class scholarship, admirable mentoring and profound contributions to science, technology, engineering and mathematics education and public engagement.”

Tapia, the son of Mexican immigrants who was the first in his family to attend college, joined Rice’s faculty in 1970 and parlayed a stellar academic career that included many of the nation’s highest scientific honors into a platform for advocating academic diversity and encouraging women and underrepresented minorities to become university professors.

The AAAS Public Engagement with Science Award was established in 1987 to recognize scientists and engineers who make outstanding contributions to the popularization of science. Past winners include physicists Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, biologist Edward O. Wilson, AIDS researcher Anthony Fauci, marine ecologist Jane Lubchenco and mathematicians John Allen Paulos and Steven Strogatz. Tapia is the first Hispanic to win the award.

“I’m intimidated and humbled to be included in that group of people,” Tapia said. “They’re wonderful. They’re my heroes. When I look at the people who’ve won this award, it’s very difficult for me to convince myself that I belong in that group.”

Though Tapia has won many honors, including the nation’s highest academic honor, the National Medal of Science, he said the feeling of not belonging is one that has followed him throughout his academic career and has allowed him to empathize closely with underrepresented minority students. He said he takes pride in each award and honor he receives because they prove a point that he tries to make every day with both students and academic peers.

“I have lived the American dream from the barrios of Los Angeles to the White House, and my message is that excellence comes in all flavors,” Tapia said.

“We are very proud to see Richard’s lifetime of public engagement with science acknowledged by the AAAS,” said Rice University President David Leebron. “Such distinctive recognition by his peers is one of the hallmarks of Richard’s highly successful career, but even more important are the thousands of minority students who were motivated to go to college and able to complete graduate studies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics as a result of Richard’s mentoring, advocacy and support. It is vitally important work that we must continue to build on.”

In nominating Tapia for the AAAS Public Engagement with Science Award, Rice Provost Marie Lynn Miranda wrote, “Today, education in the United States faces daunting challenges, one of the most worrisome being the nation’s failure to attract sufficient numbers of our brightest young women and men — especially underrepresented minorities, who increasingly make up our population — to careers in science and engineering. Professor Tapia has spent a lifetime working to accomplish the two goals of strong science and a meaningful role for women and minorities in STEM fields.”

Tapia grew up in Los Angeles. He and his twin brother, Robert, loved drag racing when they were growing up, and they worked on cars throughout high school. A year after Richard received his Ph.D. in mathematics from UCLA in 1967, Robert set a world record for top fuel dragsters.

Because Tapia’s area of research — optimization and iterative methods for nonlinear problems — can be somewhat inaccessible to general audiences, he has used his firsthand knowledge of muscle cars and drag racing to capture the attention and imagination of his target audience: youth from communities that are underrepresented in the sciences. His popular talk “Math at Top Speed: Exploring and Breaking Myths in the Drag Racing Folklore” has been presented to thousands of young people and their mentors at universities and professional conferences. Another presentation, “Math Is Cool,” inspires inner-city youth to explore careers in STEM fields.

“I want to help. I want to make the country a better place,” Tapia said. “I get sincere satisfaction out of helping students and doing things that have not been done before. My uniqueness comes in that I have contributed in research and outreach and education and visibility for science. I’m not the world’s greatest researcher or the world’s greatest at outreach. But it’s very hard to find somebody who’s given more in both components.”

Tapia, a former member of the National Science Board, won the National Medal of Science in 2010 and the prestigious Vannevar Bush Award in 2014. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1992 and is one of only seven Rice faculty members to hold the rank of University Professor, Rice’s highest academic title. He became a fellow of AAAS in 2012 and he has received many other awards and honorary degrees.

Tapia, who also holds Rice’s Maxfield-Oshman Chair in Engineering and Computational and Applied Mathematics, has directed or co-directed more underrepresented minority and women doctoral recipients in mathematics than anyone else in the country and has led numerous programs that have brought recognition to Rice’s commitment to diversity.

Shirley Malcom, director of AAAS Education and Human Resources Programs, said Tapia “has inspired and encouraged women, minorities and youth from low-income communities to dream big and use math and science to achieve those dreams while also providing a model for academic mathematicians to engage with the public.”

In her nomination of Tapia, Miranda noted the two prominent national conferences that bear Tapia’s name: the Blackwell-Tapia Mathematics Conference at Cornell University and the Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing. Miranda’s nomination was endorsed by Rice physicist and former White House science adviser Neal Lane, a fellow at Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, and by Rice professor emeritus and former dean of engineering Sidney Burrus.

The award will be presented Feb. 17 at the 183rd AAAS Annual Meeting in Boston.

AAAS is the world’s largest general scientific society. Founded in 1848, it includes nearly 250 affiliated societies and academies serving 10 million individuals. AAAS also publishes Science, the world’s largest paid circulation, peer-reviewed general science journal. 

About Jade Boyd

Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.