Get to know Dr. Richard Tapia, a leader in the field of STEM Mentoring

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As a renowned mathematics professor and exemplary science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) mentor who founded and directs the Tapia Center for Excellence and Equity at Rice University, Dr. Richard Tapia (PAESMEM 1996) recounts many stories about his life and work. One story in particular stands out though. When he was 17, he won an American Mathematical Society (AMS) competition at his Los Angeles high school. However, that year, unlike previous years, no announcement of the award was made during a school assembly. Tapia drew his own conclusion: his achievement was ignored because he was Hispanic.

“They didn’t want this Mexican to be the best in math at the school, I guess. I think that created in me a sense that I am good, and I am as good as you, and I’ll show you,” Tapia remembers.

Today, the Tapia name and contributions to mathematics and mentoring are indelible in the STEM community in the United States.

The recipient of dozens of awards and recognitions, Tapia holds the highest honors in mathematical achievement, including the National Medal of Science, the National Science Board’s Vannevar Bush Award, the American Mathematical Society’s Distinguished Public Service Award and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics’ prize for Distinguished Service to the Profession.

Lifelong mentor

As a mentor, Tapia is among the inaugural 1996 awardees of the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM), the 1997 American Association for the Advancement of Science Award Lifetime Mentor and an inductee of the Texas Science Hall of Fame. The David Blackwell-Richard Tapia Mathematics Conference and the Association for Computing Machinery Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing Conference both carry his name and both bestow an award that bears his name to a deserving individual. The Tapia computing conference will be held in Atlanta this year on September 20-23.

“I worked hard at balancing STEM mentorship and outreach with my profession of mathematics and computation. It was not easy. I have been doing this for more than 45 years,” Tapia says.

The fruits of Tapia’s STEM mentoring efforts are impressive and exponential. Since earning tenure early in his academic career in 1972 at Rice, Tapia’s mentoring networks have produced more than 300 Ph.D. graduates and 1100 graduate STEM researchers enrolled in the Tapia Center’s Rice Graduate Education for Minorities (RGEM) Program. The program began in 1998 with initial funding from the National Science Foundation and additional support from the Sloan Foundation until 2011. Rice revived the program in 2015 to continue its work in providing support and mentoring to underrepresented graduate students from the science, mathematics and engineering schools at the university. During the last three years, the Tapia Center also has administered summer camps for middle and high school students as well as teacher professional development camps. To date, the camps have enrolled more than 1,500 students throughout the country.

Community matters

Tapia began his STEM mentoring work by recognizing that Hispanic, African-American and other underrepresented students studying STEM disciplines need to have “a sense of belonging” to the profession and to a community. Tapia says the realization grew from his experience as a doctoral mathematics student at UCLA in the late 1960s. As the only Hispanic among his class of 350 mathematics majors, he joined minorities in other disciplines at the school who were advocating for societal change. Tapia says his early graduate experiences among social activists at UCLA in the 1960s “molded” him.

“When I went to Rice, I would say to other underrepresented students, ‘I’ve been where you are. I know what you’re going through. I can help you.’ That’s why one of the most important things we do at the [Tapia] institute is to give students a community—across STEM disciplines—to belong to,” Tapia explains. “We get together on campus, we invite speakers and we empower the students to help in the process. A lot of times, students don’t even know what another student’s discipline is. But they have a relationship that helps nurture their persistence in their field.”

Mentees carry on tradition

Tapia’s mentees—both current and those who have also become colleagues—say his influence is infectious and far-reaching. For example, Dr. Cristina Villalobos, a mathematics and statistical sciences professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) founded the Center for Excellence in STEM at her university.

Villalobos remembers being drawn to Tapia’s mentoring work at Rice in the mid-1990s when she was an undergraduate mathematics student in Austin, Texas.

“I remember my friend, who was also Hispanic, told me about Dr. Tapia and said we should meet him. At that time, there were no other Hispanics teaching in the math departments at the University of Texas at Austin. My friend contacted him and he agreed to meet with us,” Villalobos says. “We drove for three hours to a restaurant in Houston, where we met him and his family. Later, they took us to his home. That’s when I learned about his summer program, and I applied and was accepted that next summer of my junior year.”

Villalobos’ institute at UTRGV, which was funded by a Department of Defense grant, focused on challenge-based instruction in STEM, which assists students with grasping challenging concepts in mathematics and the sciences.  While its focus is slightly different, Villalobos credits Tapia with the underlying motivation for her efforts at the university, a Hispanic-serving institution of 25,000 students who are 85 percent Hispanic.

“I have certainly been motivated by his work to increase the number of underrepresented students in mathematics and the sciences,” Villalobos says. “I also learned from him that wherever there is a minority who may be isolated (in STEM), we should reach out.”

Mario Bencomo, a physics and applied mathematics postdoctoral researcher, recently completed work as a Tapia Summer Camp Graduate Fellow. Born in Mexico, Bencomo came to the United States when he was six years old. He says Tapia is a role model, who also has created a structure at Rice that helped him excel in his career as a researcher and allowed him to give back to his community.

“Dr. Tapia represents for me a ‘proof of concept’ that we (Hispanics) are more than capable of being researchers and excelling in the sciences,” says Bencomo, who earned his doctorate in computational and applied mathematics from Rice in May.

“Dr. Tapia likes to keep in touch with minority students that are in graduate programs and not necessarily the graduate students that are in his particular department, but throughout campus,” Bencomo says. “He sometimes brings speakers and we get to meet with them and make professional connections.  I definitely appreciate that.”

Bencomo says funding for his research was in jeopardy during his final year at Rice, and Dr. Tapia’s Institute helped find the funds to continue the research so he could get his Ph.D.

Bencomo says it’s been interesting to assume the role model position in an outreach program that grew out of the Tapia Center’s work at Rice. The program, called Grad Student STEM Share, encourages graduate students to speak to high school students in Houston about their research. As a volunteer for the program, Bencomo recently spoke to high school students about his research in applying mathematical models to oil exploration and seismic wave simulation data and his own career journey.

“I told them that I didn’t have much interest in science and math in high school, so I didn’t do summer preparation programs that a lot of these students were doing. I told them that was great, and it’s definitely going to give them a ‘leg up,’ but my interest didn’t start until college. When I got to college, I had to take pre-calculus,” Bencomo says. “I like to tell them my story to make the point that it’s not too late to figure out what you want to do, especially if it’s something that you’re passionate about.”

Role models in mentoring

Having role models like Bencomo from the same cultural background is an important element of encouraging Hispanics to pursue STEM fields. But Tapia says role models are only one aspect of successful STEM mentoring.

“The faculty member does not have to be a minority. I don’t believe that to mentor a black, you have to be black. Or to mentor a brown, you have to be brown. Or to mentor a woman, you have to be a woman,” he explains. “You have to be a caring person in the [subject] area that can help. And I ask them [faculty assigned as mentors] to meet with the students at least once a month and report back to me.”

Mentor expertise aside, Tapia says he understands the power of role models and uses it to his program’s and his students’ benefit.

“You have to see someone like you. I am not the role model for black students, they need to see their role models. So, I make sure I involve brown and black and female and male role models in my program,” he says.

To coalesce his mathematical achievements and STEM mentoring accomplishments, Tapia is currently hard at work on a new book, “The Precious Few.” It will include a chapter on his “community building” approach to STEM mentoring for underrepresented students as well as other salient issues around educating underrepresented minorities and women in STEM. It will also encapsulate his Hispanic American life story of scholarship, perseverance and recognition.

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Two PAESMEM organizations also making a difference for Hispanics seeking STEM careers include:

The Center for the Advancement of Hispanics in Science and Engineering Education (CAHSEE) (PAESMEM Organizational 2003)

The Center for the Advancement of Hispanics in Science and Engineering Education (CAHSEE) operates a nationwide comprehensive system of model programs that supports the academic success of Hispanic American and other minority students in the fields of science, engineering and mathematics. Fifth through 11th graders receive college-level accelerated courses in mathematics, science, and engineering to prepare them to enter top universities. Nearly all CAHSEE pre-college students enroll in science and engineering programs. Seventy percent of CAHSEE students pursue graduate degrees, mostly master’s degrees, within two years of obtaining their bachelor’s degree.

The Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) (PAESMEM Organizational 2004)

The Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) has established an array of activities that work to increase the numbers of Hispanic/Latino and Native American students pursuing and achieving advanced degrees in STEM fields. Through mentoring activities at scientific meetings, teacher workshops, and its own annual conference, and by engaging in partnerships with other professional organizations, SACNAS provides and supports opportunities for students to strengthen their presentation skills, self-confidence, and make connections with scientists.

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