Richard Tapia often tells disadvantaged children about his own humble upbringing in the barrios of Los Angeles. Then he tells them that he earns six figures as a mathematician.
"People are shocked when they find out how much money I make," says Tapia, now Noah Harding Professor in the Department of Computational and Applied Mathematics and director of the Center for Excellence and Equity in Education at Rice University. "[Counselors] told me I should be a trash worker or a mechanic, and not be a scientist."
But, Tapia adds, it's almost impossible to know whether his experience echoes the fate of most other Mexican American scientists: In National Science Foundation labor force studies, Hispanic scientists are lumped in a general category that includes everyone from the sons of migrant farm workers to the children of Spanish presidents. "What makes me mad is that a lot of the scholarships that are put up are essentially awarded to these people [from elite groups]."
Reported salaries for all minority group members in the life sciences present a flawed picture at best. While 9,058 white life scientists responded to a survey by Abbott, Langer & Associates and sponsored by The Scientist and the American Institute of Biological Sciences, the responses by minorities were low. Only 1,448 Asians, 299 Hispanics, 152 African Americans, 33 Pacific Islanders, and 22 Native Americans/ Alaskans/Canadians responded. The paucity of survey results reflects low minority participation in the sciences in general. According to the NSF, though African Americans comprised about 12.8% of the US population, only 191, or about 2.4% of the US citizens and permanent residents earned doctoral degrees in natural sciences in 1997, the last year of the study.1
Paula Park can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.