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Dallas Morning News, November 2013

OK, fellas. Isn’t it time for a woman as Texan of the Year? I have the perfect candidate: Mary Wheeler, math and engineering whiz at the University of Texas at Austin, who now is the first woman to win the John von Neumann Medal for Career Achievements. (John von Neumann was an icon of everything—from the Manhattan Project to game theory, with a lot of physics in between.) This award, named for him, is the highest of  honors in a world little known to many of us but that affects us all—computational mechanics.

What can that possibly be? A reasonable question. Just think of fracking—hydraulic fracturing —and you’ll get a glimpse of what she’s talking about in press reports when she explains that her aim at the moment is to figure out how fractures spread in a rock and liquids flow through those fissures. Why would she want to do that? Because she ‘s determined to protect groundwater and find safe places enclosed in rock where carbon dioxide can be stored, out of harm’s way.

The discipline around which Mary Wheeler is organizing her energies is called subsurface modeling, and it can be applied just as easily to the flow of blood in the body and to bones that are porous, not unlike rocks. All this can be expressed mathematically. Mathematics,” she told Monica Kortsha, “is the language of sciences.”

Wheeler learned to speak that language when few of either sex, and certainly not women, had the nerve to try.  Not many in her home town, Cuero, ever ventured to such rarified places of the mind.  From this small setting near San Antonio, she set off for Austin and the University of Texas, thinking to major in pharmacy. But she wandered into math instead and fell in love with computations as well as an engineering student named John Wheeler.  In time they were married, he went to work at Exxon Production Research and she earned multiple degrees, including a Ph.D. at Rice, when her daughter (now a physician) was three.

According to a profile several years ago, Wheeler has been known to make important presentations dressed in fashionably high heels and a fur coat.  A colleague once said, “There’s a certain Southern-belle quality about her.”

Maybe so.  But I would add that I sense a touch of Ann Richards as well.  That’s due to an early photograph that  to me recalls the former governor.  Today, I suspect there endures still in Mary Wheeler a Richardsonian quality, central to the success of both women: an ability to meet the guys on their own ground, pleasantly spirited but never giving up a single square foot of territory.  It adds up to the special talent of the good old girl.  

Whether I’m right or wrong, there’s no question, as article after article proclaims, that Mary Wheeler reigns in glory at UT in the departments of aerospace and petroleum and geosystems engineering, not to mention engineering mechanics. Got all that?  I don’t.  But I felt a little closer to the truth of Mary Wheeler when I came across this line by Virginia Woolf: “It was love…like the love which mathematicians bear their symbols, or poets their phrases, [that] was meant to be spread over the world and become part of the human gain.” That is what the work of Mary Wheeler means.  Texan of the Year? I think so.

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