SIAM News Blog

Richard Tapia Receives NSB Vannevar Bush Award

By Carlos Castillo-Chavez

Richard Tapia of Rice University has received the National Science Board’s 2014 Vannevar Bush Award. Honored at a banquet and award ceremony at the State Department on May 6, Tapia was cited for “his extraordinary leadership, inspiration, and advocacy to increase opportunities for underrepresented minorities in science; distinguished public service leadership in science and engineering; and exceptional contributions to mathematics in the area of computational optimization.”

Self-described “outspoken critic” of a society too slow to elevate Latinos to prominent positions, Richard Tapia graciously accepted the Vannevar Bush Award. Photo courtesy of the National Science Foundation/Sandy Schaeffer Photography.
Accompanied by Jean Tapia, his wife of 55 years, and their two children, Tapia gave an acceptance speech to an audience made up of current and former NSB members, science leaders, family, and friends. He recalled his role as an outspoken critic of the long-delayed inclusion in the US of “Latinos in upper levels of administration in academia and the National Science Foundation.” Nonetheless, he pointed out, for the first time in history, the director of NSF, France Cordova, the chair of NSB, Dan Arvizu, and the recipient of the Vannevar Bush Award are all Mexican–Americans. “Awards of this magnitude and prestige,” Tapia said, are important in that they add credibility to work on behalf of underrepresented minorities “and facilitate its implementation.”

Attending a ceremony at the State Department in honor of a longtime member of SIAM was an inspiring and thrilling moment for me. To convey the significance of this award to readers of SIAM News, I asked a set of national and SIAM leaders in applied mathematics and education to offer personal thoughts on Tapia’s contributions. 

“What makes Richard so remarkable is that he continues to show us what’s possible—that this nation has thousands of children from all backgrounds who can become productive mathematicians and scientists,” said Freeman Hrabowski, president of UMBC. “His passion for education and his commitment to young people should inspire all of us to do more. In the words of Aristotle, ‘choice not chance determines your destiny.’”

“Richard Tapia as well as his story have been a personal inspiration for me and many, many people who come from groups which have been traditionally prevented from making their unique contributions to the progress of science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields in the United States. By his success, he has demonstrated what is possible,” said Sylvester James Gates, 2012 recipient of the National Medal of Science.

Among those expressing admiration for Tapia’s efforts were two former SIAM presidents. “For nearly half a century,” in the words of Doug Arnold, “Richard Tapia has been a tireless force for excellence and inclusion in [STEM disciplines]. . . . The face of American mathematics literally would not be the same were it not for Richard Tapia’s work.”

Mexican-Americans all: NSB chair Dan Arvizu, Richard Tapia, and NSF director France Cordova. Photo courtesy of the National Science Foundation/Sandy Schaeffer Photography.
Mac Hyman focused on Tapia’s passion for science and commitment to engaging others to consider careers in the mathematical sciences: “He has the rare ability to inspire and share his love for mathematics with underrepresented communities, and has given a generation of young professionals the self-confidence to embrace careers in the mathematical sciences.”

“Richard Tapia has been a persistent and effective teacher and mentor for the under-represented in our society, drawing them to the beauty and value of mathematics,” said Rita Colwell, who as director of NSF (1998–2004) supported dramatic increases in funding for the mathematical sciences. “He is personally responsible for a large number of new entrants to the world of mathematics, including women, a component of society rarely encouraged to enter mathematics as a professional career path. Richard deserves the recognition and accolades now coming to him.”

As a fellow mathematician, Brit Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland and chair of the Board on Higher Education and Workforce of the US National Academies, considers Tapia “a personal hero for his lifelong commitment to excellence and inclusion in higher education” and for his research, which “has broadened the frontiers of knowledge in important areas of mathematics.” Tapia is a previous co-chair of BHEW (of which I am a current member).

Vannevar Bush was long associated with MIT, where he was a faculty member before becoming vice president and dean of the MIT School of Engineering (in 1932). In the words of L. Rafael Reif, recently inaugurated as MIT’s first Hispanic president, “ . . . scholar, educator, mentor, and leader, . . . the qualities that Dr. Bush held so dear make [Richard Tapia] an excellent choice for this great honor.” Wesley Harris, Charles Stark Draper Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT, pointed to Tapia’s standing among the na-tion’s leaders in producing scholarship in mathematics and in mentoring graduate students, especially underrepresented minority graduate students who have earned PhDs under his supervision.

Having participated most recently in an advisory capacity with Tapia in MIT’s initiative on faculty and race, I take this opportunity to reiterate the great impact that he has had on my life. He has made me think hard about equity and under-representation, particularly about the damage and severe limitations still caused by definitions of meritocracy that fail to account for the deleterious effects of history and initial conditions even as we work to ensure that everybody has access to the promises of our democracy. This effort has been led in words and actions by the incomparable Richard Tapia.

Carlos Castillo-Chavez is Regents Professor, Joaquin Bustoz Jr. Professor of Mathematical Biology, and Distinguished Sustainability Scientist at Arizona State University.

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