Mary Wheeler is the 2013 John von Neumann medalist. The medal is the highest award bestowed by the United States Association for Computational Mechanics. Computational science is a field obsessed with convergence, where equations are scripted to result in real-world numbers that minimize risk and chance as much as possible. With that in mind, it’s a bit ironic that Mary Wheeler, the director of the ICES Center for Subsurface Modeling, became a mathematician and computational scientist because of an accidental encounter.
“My roommate in college was taking a numerical analysis course and I would see her working on those problems and I thought ‘that’s interesting.’ And that’s how I first got involved,” said Wheeler, who was enrolled in the late 1950s at The University of Texas as a government major. “It happened by circumstance.”
That exposure ignited chain of events, starting with Wheeler adding a math major to her undergraduate studies, which would lead her to pursue a career in mathematics. Although her start in the field may have been a chance affair, Wheeler is now purposefully driving her chosen field forward as a world-renown researcher in subsurface modeling.
Wheeler has published over 250 research papers, and has made advancements in developing algorithms for modeling subsurface flow in a variety of contexts, from reservoirs of oil and gas beneath the earth’s surface to blood flow beneath the human integument. Now, her achievements have been recognized with the John von Neumann Medal, the highest award bestowed by the Unites States Association for Computational Mechanics. She is the first woman to receive the medal in its 23-year history. The award honors individuals who have made “outstanding, sustained contributions in the field of computational mechanics generally over periods representing substantial portions of their professional careers.” John von Neumann, the award’s namesake, was a 20th century scientist and mathematician whose fundamental contributions to computer science, applied mathematics, and physics—as well as his ability to astound his colleagues with his feats of mental math—put him in the pantheon of scientific greats.
“It’s a very prestigious award. And I’d like to say, I’m excited because von Neumann has been one of my heroes in science,” said Wheeler. “He appreciated the importance of these problems.” Digging Deeper It’s not rare to hear mathematicians use the word “elegance” to describe the intrinsic beauty of a well-constructed theorem, even if it’s not being applied to any “real-world” problem. Some mathematicians prefer to work with pure mathematics and focus on elegance over application. Wheeler is not one of them.
“One of the things I noticed as a graduate student was that there were a lot of people in math who weren’t really interested in physical problems. And that always bothered me,” said Wheeler. “Because I think it is interesting to do a problem just for curiosity. But it is exciting to see how you can apply it.” The homepage to her personal website echoes this sentiment with a bolded, mission-statement at the top of the page. "I really enjoy developing efficient and accurate solutions to real-world problems,
while maintaining a solid theoretical base."
But the best way to see Wheeler’s approach to mathematics and computational science is to examine her range of research projects and published papers spanning more than 50 years. Her research is united by the common topic of subsurface modeling, where the biggest funders come from the oil and gas industry, but the applications range much further than what an oil drill bit can reach. “Your body is a subsurface and bones and breasts are a porous media. And the same mathematical models we do for geological subsurface also apply to the subsurface of the body,” said Wheeler.