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.”