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Professor receives National Medal of Science

By Hallie Jordan     9/28/11 7:00pm

Coming from an immigrant family who was the first to go to college, computer and applied mathematics professor Richard Tapia never planned on winning any awards – especially one of the most prestigious in the country. Now, he is scheduled to receive he National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama in October.

"This is an extraordinary honor, and we are thrilled for Richard and we are thrilled that country has recognized him for this," President David Leebron said. "He's obviously an extraordinary scientist, but he has also really dedicated himself to opening up opportunities for underrepresented minorities. He's creating a national agenda."

Tapia has been honored by the president in the past when he received the inaugural Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring in 1996, and in the same year earned a presidential appointment to the National Science Board.

Tapia thas been working at Rice since 1970. He is known not only for his work in mathematics, but also for his commitment to promoting the sciences as an area of study to women and minority students, who are typically underrepresented in the field.

About half a dozen scientists are chosen each year by the National Science Foundation as recipients of the National Medal of Science. This year, there were seven recipients from around the country. The award is given based on scientific work and research but also based on service on behalf of the sciences. Recipients are chosen by a 12-member committee.

"This is not a dream come true because I never dreamed about it," Tapia said. "I was very aware it existed, but I never came close to thinking I would ever get one. It's very much a shock and a pleasure."

Growing up in Los Angeles, Tapia is the child of Mexican immigrants and was the first in his family to go to college. He received his bachelor's, master's and Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of California–Los Angeles.

Taking from his own experiences, Tapia has been recognized nationally for his efforts to help underrepresented minorities not only get degrees in math and science, but also go to college in general. Due partly to his influence, Rice's Department of Computational and Applied Mathematics has had more than double the national average of both minority and female Ph.D. students graduate each year for more than a decade.

Baker Institute Senior Fellow Neal Lane, who previously directed the NSF emphasized the importance of having students with different perspectives and backgrounds working together.

"There are bright people who are born everywhere and many are living in environments that are very harsh, so it is important that we reach out to them and find mechanisms to make sure everybody has a chance," Lane, a physics professor, said.

However, the number of underre resented minorities majoring in math and science, especially engineering, is still low, Lane said.

The award reflects well on Rice and Houston, Tapia said, who is not only happy to receive it for his career but to represent this part of the country.

"We're all fighting for visibility, and science awards tend to go to the East or West Coasts. It is very satisfying to represent Rice and Houston and Texas," Tapia said.

Out of the 468 people who have ever received a National Medal of Science, only about 10 have been from Texas, he said.

For his efforts to help minority students, Tapia has been given several awards previously, including the Lifetime Mentor Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Distinguished Service to the Profession Prize from the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, the Distinguished Public Service Award from the American Mathematical Society, and the Distinguished Scientist Award from the Society for the Advancement of Hispanics/Chicanos and Native Americans in Science. He is the first academician to be named Hispanic Engineer of the Year by Hispanic Engineer & Information Technology Magazine.

"Used to be people wouldn't give me credit, now maybe they give me too much credit. I'm Mexican-American, we're humble people," Tapia said.

Other Rice faculty who have received the National Medal of Science include chemistry professor Frederick Rossini, who was awarded the 1976 medal by President Jimmy Carter for contributions to basic reference knowledge in chemical thermodynamics, and former Rice President and distinguished professor emeritus Norman Hackerman, who was chairman of the Welch Foundation's Scientific Advisory Board when he was presented the medal by President Bill Clinton in 1993 for his contributions to electrochemistry, higher education and science. Rice alumni who have received this honor include James Gunn (Baker '61), who was presented the medal by Obama in 2009 for his design of many of the most influential telescopes and instruments in astronomy, and Dennis Sullivan (Wiess '63), who was presented the medal by President George W. Bush in 2004 for his work on algebraic topology, quantum field theory and string theory.

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