You may not know it, but Tuesday, September 27, 2011, was a momentous day for us Latinos in science, engineering, and technology.   On that day, President Obama announced the names of seven prominent scientists and engineers who will receive the National Medal of Science.  One of these luminaries is Dr. Richard Tapia, University Professor and Maxfield-Oshman Professor of Engineering at Rice University in Houston, Texas. 

Dr. Tapia is not the first person of Hispanic descent to receive the medal, but I think his story is among the most inspiring.  And since we are in the midst of National Hispanic Heritage Month--declared by President Obama in mid-September—I thought I’d share a few of the details of Dr. Tapia’s life that I find especially inspiring.

First of all, he is a prime example of el que quiere, puede, or “he who wants, can.”  You see, Dr. Tapia’s parents were immigrants from Mexico who were themselves not highly educated but who stressed the importance of education to their children.  He was the first person in his family to receive college degrees.  He proved to be very talented in mathematics and could have stopped after getting his first degree.  But he wanted more… el que quiere, puede… so he got a doctoral degree in math from UCLA.  Dr. Tapia moved from sunny Los Angeles to snowy Wisconsin to teach for a few years, then moved south to Rice University, where he has made a tremendous impact on both mathematical knowledge and the science community.

While honing his academic credentials (he was the first Hispanic elected to the National Academy of Engineering, was appointed by President Clinton to the National Science Board, chaired the National Research Council's Board on Higher Education and the Workforce, and has had two annual academic conferences named after him), Dr. Tapia has never forgotten where he comes from and has been a relentless advocate for diversity in mathematics.  He was a founding member of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) in 1973, an organization that fosters the success of Hispanic/Chicano and Native American scientists—from college students to professionals—to attain advanced degrees, careers, and positions of leadership in science.  He is a national hero in promoting the education and careers of women and other underrepresented minorities.  His outreach and mentoring efforts have turned Rice University into a national leader in producing Ph.D. recipients in the mathematical sciences.

According to his website, thirty-five mathematics students have received, or are currently working on, the Ph.D. degree under his direction or co-direction. Of these 35 students, 15 have been women and 8 have been underrepresented minorities.   To capture the awesomeness of these numbers, let us consider that in 2008 there were 15,636 graduate students in mathematics in the U.S.  According to UNESCO, the U.S. has 5,758 institutions of higher learning, roughly giving each institution an average of almost 3 graduate students in math.  Why has Tapia’s program been so successful?  Simple answer:  because he cares.  He is personally involved in the nurturing of talented youth, setting a living example of el que quiere, puede.

Richard Tapia’s life, professional excellence, and giving nature make him a wonderful role model to all of us.  Let us celebrate our Latino Laureate!  ¡Felicidades, Dr. Tapia!

Mayra N. Hernández Montrose is the Manager of the National Medal of Science at the National Science Foundation

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