Emmy Noether Lectures

1989 Lecturer: Mary F. Wheeler

Large Scale Modeling of Problems Arising in Flow in Pourous Media

Mary Fanett Wheeler has made important contributions to technology transfer and applied mathematics through interactions with the academic community and industry. Born in Cuero, Texas, she received two bachelor’s degrees, in government and mathematics, from the University of Texas at Austin and at one point considered law school. She was interested in combining mathematics and economics, but switched her focus when she became interested in physical and engineering applications. She earned her doctorate in mathematics from Rice University in 1971.
Her academic positions include an M.D. Anderson Professorship at the University of Houston (l988-l990), where she was the first woman to hold such a position. Since 1988, she has held the position of Noah Harding Professor of Computational and Applied Mathematics (formerly Mathematical Sciences) at Rice University (she was the first woman to hold such a position at Rice). She has presented numerous lectures in Europe, Latin America, and the former Soviet Union. Sixteen doctoral students have completed degrees under her guidance. In 1993, she presented an AMS-MAA Joint Invited Address at the Joint Mathematics Meetings in San Antonio.
Active in a number of professional organizations, Wheeler served on the Committees on Science Policy for the American Mathematical Society and for the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, and is a Trustee of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics. She was chair of the Advisory Committee for the Mathematical Sciences of the National Science Foundation and served on review committees for Argonne and Oak Ridge National Laboratories, in addition to numerous review committees for the Department of Energy and the NSF. The author of over hundred technical papers and editor of five books, she has been editor of the SIAM Journal of Numerical Analysis, Numerical Methods in Partial Differential Equations, Insitu, andNumerical Methods.In addition, she is chair of the SIAM Activity Group in Geoscience, which has over five hundred members.
Wheeler’s area of research is applied mathematics, or, more specifically, numerical solutions of partial differential equations, parallel computation, and modeling flow in porous media. Her Noether Lecture focused on the latter topic, which illustrates the way computational science establishes a link between theory and experiment. Wheeler’s work in this area has been used to develop better models for oil recovery and for the remediation of pollutants in ground water.
Wheeler’s husband is an engineer working at Exxon Production Research; her daughter will be finishing medical school in June 1994. Wheeler says she wasn’t really serious about mathematics until she proved her first result. “Because of that, I try to get my own graduate students into research very early,” she notes. Her graduate student days were somewhat complicated by the fact that she was married and had a small child at the time. “It was not the accepted thing for a woman to be going back to school when she had a small child,” she recalls. But she feels that the nature of mathematical research eased the burden.”I proved some of my best results in front of the television when my daughter was watching,” she says. Wheeler works with scientists from a range of disciplines and particularly enjoys the challenges that engineering problems present. She points to such areas as global change, toxic waste disposal, and AIDS as ones in which mathematicians can make a difference. “There are enormous problems facing our country, and to have an impact on them is exciting. That’s what turns me on.”