Richard Tapia, whose contributions to mathematics and dedication to diversity in education won him the 2010 National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama, spoke on both topics during a two-day visit to Lehigh last week.
“Believe in yourself and education, and you can accomplish anything,” said Tapia, who is a professor of computational and applied mathematics and director of the Center for Excellence and Equity in Education at Rice University.
In a lecture on Feb. 28 titled “Crisis In Higher Education: The Need for New Leadership,” Tapia discussed the need for supporting and mentoring underrepresented minority students in higher education. He encouraged the audience to motivate and encourage these students.
“While recruiting underrepresented minority students, universities should look to see if the student will be a good fit,” said Tapia. “When they admit a student, they want to make sure that the student is prepared to succeed, will be happy and will make the institution a better place.”
Tapia, who also holds the Maxfield-Oshman Professorship in Engineering and is a University Professor at Rice, focused on how to be better professionals, mentors and champions of diversity in mathematics and of life in general.
“Higher education professionals need to understand that people come from all different paths and backgrounds to get where they want to go,” he said.
“I thought his talk was enlightening,” said Patty Garmirian, a Ph.D. candidate in mathematics. “The statistics were very interesting.”
Tapia, who in 1992 became the first Hispanic elected to the National Academy of Engineering, also gave a lecture on March 1 titled “The Isoperimetric Problem Revisited: Extracting a Short Proof of Sufficiency from Euler's 1744 Proof of Necessity.”
Tapia conducts research in mathematical optimization and iterative methods for nonlinear problems. He is currently studying algorithms for constrained optimization and interior point methods for linear and nonlinear programming.
“The critical need my research addresses is how math tools can solve problems,” said Tapia. “Better science will provide better technology to solve the world’s problems. The main goal of my research is to try and make the world a better place.”
“I have known Richard for over 20 years and I believe he is one of the greatest men of our time,” said Tamás Terlaky, Industrial and Systems Engineering Department Chair and the George N. and Soteria Kledaras ‘87 Endowed Chair Professor. “He is not only a great researcher, but a caring husband and father, not just to his own children, but for all of his students and anyone who he senses he can help.”
Being awarded the National Medal of Science was an extremely humbling experience for Tapia.
“When President Obama said that I had ‘provided a great value to the nation,’ that validated that everything I was doing in my life was correct,” he said.
“Richard Tapia’s experiences and important messages are of great value to the university,” said Henry Odi, vice provost for academic diversity. “He came to Lehigh as a visitor and left as a friend.”