Lydia Tapia is an Assistant Professor in Computer Science at the University of New Mexico, where she researches methodologies for the simulation and analysis of motions. This research, which has been featured in 27 conference and journal publications, has wide applications, from developing robots to studying disease-causing proteins. Lydia has earned two provisional patents and raised almost $1.3 million in research funding.
These achievements are impressive, but they pale in comparison to what Lydia overcame as a graduate student when one night, as she graded student homework, she suffered two strokes. As a result, she lost the use of one of her arms, her vision and her ability to walk. After a year of rehabilitation in which Lydia had to learn how to walk again, pick up a pencil, write and type, she was able to resume her education. Within a year of returning, Lydia had published her first academic paper.
This astonishing recovery and her continued success has driven Lydia to give back to her community, which in New Mexico, a minority-majority state, often struggles with poverty. Nearly one out of three children live in poverty, and more than 65 percent are eligible for Medicaid. Lydia is committed to introducing these children in her community to science, despite these challenging socioeconomic conditions.
“We have developed a traveling show with interactive exhibits to demonstrate our research,” Lydia says. “These demos enable students to touch, control and learn about different robotic motion applications.”
Lydia says she likes to reach out to students of all ages, from kindergarteners to high school students.
“The response is always enthusiastic,” she says. “The teachers have told us that we inspire several days of ensuing ‘robot discussions’.”
As a faculty member at UNM, Lydia says that one of the most rewarding aspects of her job is mentoring students. She serves as a research mentor to undergraduate and graduate students, helping them understand how to pose research questions, pursue solutions to those questions and effectively communicate their findings to others. She also mentors students regarding their professional careers by helping them navigate curriculum to developing them into strong candidates for graduate students.
“I get deep personal satisfaction from a student delivering their first conference talk, producing an amazing and thoughtful paper and getting a fellowship to attend graduate school,” Lydia says.
But Lydia explains that there’s only so much she can do as a mentor.
“I can only give advice, guidance and time,” she says. “A mentee has to put in the work to produce fruitful results.”
Lydia is passionate about reaching as many young people as possible and communicating the importance of diversity in technology. Her lab is home to multiple age groups of students, including high school students, undergraduates, graduate students and postdocs. Additionally, to help boost female participation in computer science, Lydia also founded a women-in-computing group at the university.
Overall, Lydia is optimistic about the state of women in tech today, thanks to a growing number of strong mentors and role models that can help female computer science students overcome obstacles.
“In some ways, we have it so much better than even a few years ago,” Lydia says. “[But] in spite of these advances and resources, we are still not attracting women to tech fields in large enough numbers. Novel, creative solutions must still be sought.”