Agnes Scott College


Using Math to Preserve the Environment

By Julianne Basinger
Chronicle of Higher Education
February 27, 1998

Copyright 1998, The Chronicle of Higher Education. Posted with permission on This article may not be posted, published, or distributed without permission from The Chronicle.

As a young girl in the small Texas town of Cuero, Mary F. Wheeler always hated to see the oak trees torn from the open land to make way for oil rigs. Later, as she built a career as an applied mathematician-a rare discipline among women-she found a way to combine her love for the land with the economic realities of the demand for Texas oil.

Dr. Wheeler, 59, now creates mathematical models for cleaning up the underground contamination, including petroleum that leaks into areas where it doesn't naturally occur. Her work also has been used to help plan cleanup efforts for contamination at nuclear-waste sites.

Her laboratory, the Center for Subsurface Modeling, at the University of Texas at Austin, takes a multidisciplinary approach to solving environmental problems. She and her colleagues create three-dimensional computer models of petroleum and natural-gas reservoirs, groundwater aquifers, and natural bays and estuaries, to show underground flows and changing concentrations of waste and other chemical and biological agents.

The models take geological and chemical considerations into account to help scientists devise effective cleanup strategies. "It's a constantly evolving field," Dr. Wheeler says. "No one will ever live to see the problems solved."

But the stakes are high for finding solutions as quickly as possible, she says, pointing to a copy of Jonathan Harr's A Civil Action. The book tells of the unusually high number of fatal cases of leukemia among children in a Massachusetts neighborhood that was found to have contaminated groundwater-and of the lawsuit that followed.

In approaching such contamination problems, strategies that take advantage of chemistry can speed up the process by decades, Dr. Wheeler says. For example, pumping out contaminated groundwater could take 100 years, while using a surfactant--a chemical agent--could clean the water in one year.

Her laboratory also works with corporations that pay a $15,000 annual fee to have ready access to its research. Company scientists also can collaborate with the university researchers. About half of the laboratory's work involves oil production; the other half focuses on cleanup.


Dr. Wheeler's rural beginnings in Cuero, a town of about 6,700 people and 70 miles south of San Antonio, helped foster her environmental interests. But her route to mathematics was an unlikely one. Her high school didn't even offer trigonometry.

She entered the University of Texas at Austin to study pharmacy, but switched her major to government and began taking math classes as electives. "I thought it would be fun to take these courses in math," she says. "I just got interested in these problems."

She also met her husband, John Wheeler, at the university, where he was a graduate student in engineering. He now works as a research fellow in petroleum engineering at Austin.

The very presence of a woman in the 1950's was an oddity. Dr. Wheeler remembers walking into the engineering building, where a professor in the hallway said to her, "And who do you belong to?"

Her interest in mathematics carried her through a master's degree at Austin, and on to the doctoral program at Rice University. There she says, the keys to her perseverance were two "very strong mentors," Jim Douglas, Jr., and Henry Rachford-faculty members who had done some of the first applied mathematics work in modeling engineering problems. Her work as a mathematician has helped shape the field, says Todd F. Dupont, a professor of mathematics and computer science at the University of Chicago. Many mathematicians use her ideas, some of them developed about 25 years ago, in pursuing analytical methods of solving partial differential equations, he says. "She has defined and influenced the way people think about these problems."

Amid her work in math engineering, Dr. Wheeler also has taught for 26 years. In 1995, after her 24 years at Rice, she moved her laboratory, accompanied by 12 colleagues, to Austin, where she became the first woman to hold an endowed chair in the University of Texas's College of Engineering.

Her students find her demanding, but those who share her passion for the work thrive under her direction, says Monica L. Martinez, a post doctoral fellow at the laboratory who did her doctoral work under Dr. Wheeler's supervision at Rice.

Dr. Wheeler also has helped oversee the Women in Engineering Program here, which recruits women to engineering and stands by them on the way to graduation.

According to the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics only about 9 per cent of its approximately 9,000 members worldwide are women. Still, that represents an increase from 25 years ago, when only 5 per cent were women.


Dr. Wheeler's perseverance has driven her success in solving mathematical problems, says Chicago's Dr. Dupont. "She tackles a problem and is very hesitant to let it go until she solves it. But that determination wouldn't do her much good if she weren't as bright as she is. She has a strong analytical ability, and she's very creative.

She also has a strong sense of fun, and has been known to show her mathematical treatises wearing a fur coat, fancy dress, and high heels. "When you meet Mary, you almost seem to hear subtly in your ear, 'I'm Texas,'" Dr. Martinez says. "There's a certain Southern-belle quality about her."

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