June 29, 2023

photo of Mary WheelerThe U.S. Association for Computational Mechanics (USACM) has established the Mary F. Wheeler Medal, in recognition of outstanding and sustained contributions to interdisciplinary and emerging areas including earth, environmental and energy sciences (EEES). The first award will be made in 2025.

“This is really incredibly special to have a medal named after me. I almost feel inadequate, it is really something very special. I am both flattered and humbled in the enormous presence of great researchers. It couldn’t have happened at a better time for me,” said Wheeler, a professor at UT Austin’s Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics.

Wheeler is also the director of the Center for Subsurface Modeling at the Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences and a professor in the Hildebrand Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering. She holds the Ernest and Virginia Cockrell Chair of Engineering.

While Wheeler has received many accolades throughout her impressive career, this medal named in her honor will firmly plant her legacy, continuing her trailblazing path of many firsts in her field. Although the medal bears her name, it is not reserved for women.

“It will be awarded to anyone who meets the criteria. Women want a level playing field and to be competitive,” Wheeler said. 

After more than 25 years since last creating a new named award, USACM undertook the idea of creating this medal to recognize outstanding and sustained contributions to interdisciplinary and emerging areas including earth, environmental and energy sciences (EEES).

"In creating this award, USACM sought input from various committees, including the Executive Committee, and the name that was recommended unanimously is Professor Mary Wheeler. Wheeler’s path-breaking and sustained contributions to computational methods and their application to emerging interdisciplinary areas have stood out in the computational mechanics community for many decades now. USACM is privileged and deeply honored to create the Mary F. Wheeler Medal in recognition of her numerous outstanding contributions to the science and engineering community," stated Narayana Aluru, the current president of USACM and a core faculty member at the Oden Institute.

Early in her education and career, Wheeler was often the only woman in the room, but she said the trend is changing.

“There’s a strong group of women in computational mechanics and engineering now and I’m very happy to see this. There are more and more women making impressive accomplishments,” said Wheeler.

A native Texan and UT Austin alumna, Wheeler’s career has come full circle, spending nearly the last three decades at UT Austin where she first attended as a student.

“I initially started as a government major, and thought about law school, and then I took a numerical analysis course, and really liked it along with studies of flow mechanics and finite elements that brought me into the area.”

She said there were very few women taking those courses at the time.

Wheeler graduated with a double major in social sciences and mathematics, received her M.A. in mathematics from UT Austin and her Ph.D. in mathematics from Rice University in Houston. Prior to coming to UT Austin in 1995, she was the first woman to hold a chair at Rice University – the Noah Harding Professor of Computational and Applied Mathematics.

Wheeler’s research involves computer simulations to model the behavior of fluids in geological formations. Her research interests include numerical solution of partial differential systems with application to the modeling of subsurface flows and parallel computation. Applications include multiphase flow and geomechanics in fractured porous media, contaminant transport in groundwater, and sequestration of carbon in geological formations.

Wheeler co-authored the first papers on modeling flow and transport in porous media using discontinuous Galerkin (DG) and/or mixed finite element methods, and co-authored two papers (with Tom Russell and Alan Weiser), demonstrating the first proofs on convergence of cell-centered finite differences on nonuniform mesh – the standard approach employed in reservoir simulation.

USACM awards were instituted in 1993 and are very prestigious recognitions named after highly distinguished scientists. According to USACM, the Mary F. Wheeler Medal will be awarded to those whose contributions shall generally be in the form of important research results that significantly advance the understanding of theories and methods impacting EEES and other emerging areas. Industrial applications and computational analysis that advance EEES shall also represent accomplishments worthy of recognition.

This adapted story was originally published by the Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin.