Richard Tapia Wins the AAAS Public Engagement with Science Award

Award winner Richard Tapia of Rice University has spent his career inspiring women, minorities and young students from low-income communities to pursue math and science. | Brandon Martin/Rice University

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has named Rice University computational mathematician Richard Tapia to receive the 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, 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.

A Rice University faculty member since 1970, 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,” said Shirley Malcom, director of AAAS Education and Human Resources Programs.

Because his area of research – optimization and iterative methods for nonlinear problems – can be somewhat inaccessible to general audiences, Tapia 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.

Tapia, a former member of the National Science Board, received the National Medal of Science in 2011 and the 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 ever 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 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. Tapia received his Ph.D. degree in mathematics from UCLA in 1967. A year later, his brother set the world’s record for top-fuel dragsters, AAAS noted.

Tapia, who also holds Rice's Maxfield-Oshman Chair in Engineering and Computational and Applied Mathematics, was nominated for the AAAS Public Engagement with Science Award by Rice University Provost Marie Lynn Miranda. The nomination was further endorsed by 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.

In her nomination of Tapia, Miranda noted that he has been described by the Blackwell-Tapia Mathematics Conference at Cornell University as “a seminal figure who inspired a generation of African-American, Native American and Latino/Latina students to pursue careers in mathematics.” Moreover, she noted, the Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing “honors the significant contributions of Professor Tapia to the growth of diversity in computing and related disciplines.”

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.”   

The AAAS Award for Public Engagement with Science, established in 1987, recognizes scientists and engineers who make outstanding contributions to the “popularization of science.” The award conveys a monetary prize of $5,000, a commemorative plaque, complimentary registration, and travel to the AAAS Annual Meeting.

The award will be bestowed upon Tapia during the 183rd AAAS Annual Meeting in Boston Feb. 16-20, 2017. The AAAS Awards Ceremony and Reception will be held at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 17, in the Republic Ballroom of the Sheraton Boston Hotel.

[Associated image credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University]