A Delicate Balance
Richard Tapia has a strong argument for encouraging people of color to pursue careers in science and technology. "America can't maintain its first world status when such a large part of the population is outside the mainstream activity," he asserts. That's why Tapia, a Mexican-American professor of mathematics at Rice University, devotes time and energy to mentoring.
Valerie Taylor, an assistant professor of computer engineering at Northwestern University, specializes in a field known as parallel processing, in which multiple computers work in tandem to solve problems. In her current project, she's using computers to simulate how molecules combine with our body's proteins, which could speed the development of new drugs. With help from a colleague, she takes advantage of virtual reality to visualize colorful, three- dimensional models of drug molecules, giving her a new perspective on her work.
Taylor is also strongly dedicated to bringing a new perspective to the students she mentors, whether they're kids from a nearby housing project, young scholars attending a science fair, or undergrads in the classes she teaches. "I want to see a student have that spark, and say 'yes, I can do that,'" says Taylor, who wishes she'd had a black female professor while she was in school.
The value of role models isn't always appreciated. As Taylor's colleague Janet Rutledge, also African American, points out, "White males downplay role models, not realizing that the whole world is their role model."
One of only a dozen Native-American women in the US with a Ph.D in mathematics, Freda Porter-Locklear is part of a very select group. But she's also part of a close-knit community and family, whose members support and encourage her work. Growing up, she had a natural ability for math, and used her skills to help run the family farm. As a post-doctoral researcher at the University of North Carolina, she's using innovative, numerical techniques, a type of applied, or practical, mathematics, to model how micro-organisms can clean up a fuel spill.
Porter-Locklear splits her time between UNC and her home 100 miles away in Pembroke, where she's often at her husband's hardware store, chatting with customers. Her leadership and academic successes have recently presented her with a new challenge - an offer to take on the role of chancellor at Pembroke State University. If she accepts, she'll have to cut her post-doc short. Should she tip the scales toward her dedication to science, or toward education and guidance?
Tapia frequently finds himself faced with similar dilemmas. He receives so many requests to speak to teachers and student groups, he worries that his science will take a back seat to outreach activities. But he maintains a prolific publishing record and remains in great demand as a consultant to various businesses, who seek expert advice in Tapia's speciality, numerical optimization. The technique, which Tapia has helped develop, creates mathematical models that allow companies to predict and optimize their output.
Tapia, who admits to staring at the ceiling and pondering math problems while at the ballet, was the first Mexican American elected to the National Academy of Engineers. He has high expectations for his students, pushing them to challenge each other's assertions and defend their work, hoping to prepare them for future obstacles.
He still stuggles with challenges of his own. Scientists have to maintain that delicate balance between the things they do for outreach and the things they do for science, he says. "If it was a uniform solution, we would always do the same thing all the time. Then, life would be easy, but it's not," he says.
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