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Falling Into a STEM Career How One Woman Stumbled Upon Math

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 Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences’ 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 at Austin 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. She 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.
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.”
“I’ve had an interesting career and I’ve enjoyed it very much,” said Wheeler. “But I never dreamed that I would be here.”
A unique aspect of Wheeler's research is the approach of the uncertainty and of the complexity of the fluids in the geological media from the molecular scale to field scale, and their integration in computational tools to better predict the long-term behavior of subsurface energy byproduct storage.
Wheeler entered the field of applied mathematics when women were practically non-existent in it. Now, she holds the University of Texas at Austin’s Ernest and Virginia Cockrell Chair and is a professor in the departments of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics, and petroleum and geosystems engineering. Before joining UT, she was the Noah Harding Professor in engineering at Rice University.
“My family certainly encouraged me,” said Wheeler. “My mother, my husband; both were very encouraging, because certainly there weren’t very many women at that time,” said Wheeler about her start in applied mathematics.
Personal drive and family support aided Wheeler throughout her career. But Wheeler attributes luck as the force that started at all. After all, if it would not have been for a fateful roommate pairing, it’s likely that Wheeler’s career path may have gone in a completely different direction. She would have not spent decades advancing the field of applied mathematics, and mentoring dozens of graduate students who have gone on to forge their own careers. She would not have been awarded the John von Neumann medal.
Wheeler says she hopes future students of applied mathematics won’t have to be as “lucky” as she was.
“[The start of my career] just happened by circumstance, I fell into it. And people shouldn’t just fall into it,” said Wheeler, who makes a point to participate in outreach efforts toward high school students, the most recent sponsored by the Bureau of Economic Geology. “They should have exposure to it. And that’s why I’m interested in [outreach to] these small Texas towns, so at least students can be exposed to these opportunities.”