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23 May 2022

How Diversity in Computing Impacts Innovation: A Conversation With Tapia Award Recipient Dr. Juan Meza

Senior staff UC Merced, Juan Meza

Each year, CMD-IT presents a distinguished scholar and civic leader with the Richard A. Tapia Achievement Award for Scientific Scholarship, Civic Science, and Diversifying Computing. The Richard Tapia Award recognizes significant contributions made to increasing the participation of underrepresented communities in computing. 

Dr. Juan Meza, Professor in the Department of Applied Mathematics at the University of California (UC), Merced, is 2022’s Richard Tapia Award recipient. Dr. Meza was chosen because of his effective leadership and mentorship in the field of applied mathematics.

Dr. Juan Meza On Diversity, Inclusivity, and Innovation in Computing

How did you feel upon learning that you are the recipient of the 2022 Richard A. Tapia Achievement Award?

Humbled and honored. 

Why do you prioritize efforts to ensure that computing is more inclusive and diverse?

My first summer out of high school, I found an internship at NASA. It was a wonderful and eye-opening experience in many ways, and one of them was learning computer programming. I was stationed next to the mainframe room, and I not only learned how to program but also why it was so important for the scientific mission of NASA. I count that as one of my major formative experiences. It helped me decide to pursue computing as an undergraduate.

But both at NASA and in my computer science classes at Rice, I noticed that there were few, if any, other minorities in the field. The field has grown much in the intervening years, but the demographics haven’t changed much. For me, computing needs to be diverse and inclusive because many of the problems we face today will require new and different ways to address them. And to solve these problems, you need to have as diverse a field as possible.

So you were actually one of Dr. Tapia’s students at Rice. What’s your fondest memory of knowing him as a student? 

So many. But one of my favorites is the time I went to Tapia’s office to ask a question about a homework assignment. I had received 10 points less on one of the questions than one of my classmates for essentially the same answer. I decided to ask him about the difference, so I gathered up my courage and went to his office to plead my case. After looking over the homework and thinking it over for a bit, he turned to me and said, “you’re right Juan, you are right.” He then handed me my homework back. Not knowing what this all meant, I asked him if I was going to get the 10 points. He looked at me and said very adamantly, “NO.” He followed it up by saying, “you can make it up on your next homework.” And I did. 

What I learned from this experience is to not think too much about what’s already happened. Instead, you should learn from that experience, and how you can do better in the future. 

What role do you believe diversity plays in innovation?

To innovate is to challenge the status quo. Innovation is about thinking outside the box. It is about thinking differently than others who have looked at the same problem. First, you need good ideas. And you can’t do that if you don’t include as many ideas as possible. 

Diversity is also important because it allows different ideas to come forward. In my experience, if you’re seeking innovative solutions, the best training for that is to come from a background that is different from others. All of us are informed by our life experiences. Those experiences can help us solve problems in new and unique ways. These experiences also drive the questions we ask, which are at the heart of innovation. If you want to challenge the status quo, it helps if you’re not part of it.

What’s your advice to those who are in the early stages of their career in science and computing?

The most important advice I can give people in the early stages of their career is to take chances and don’t be too afraid of failure. Stepping outside your comfort zone is what helps you grow and learn new things. Life-long learning is what science and computing are about. 

I would also advise patience and perseverance. It’s not always easy, and there are many people who will tell you that you can’t do it. What they’re really saying is that they couldn’t do it. Finally, I would say that you should try to help out others whenever you can. Our communities need to develop strong and nurturing support networks if we are to expand opportunities for everyone.
The Richard Tapia Award will be presented to Dr. Meza at this year’s CMD-IT/ACM Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing Conference held in Washington, D.C. from September 7 – 10, 2022. The Tapia Conference is the premier venue to acknowledge, promote, and celebrate diversity in computing. You can register for Tapia 2022 starting in June here.