Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Joe Young Blood

The renaming of a UT research center in the Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences is sure to get students’ blood pumping.

Cardiologist Dr. James Willerson was honored by the institute after a cardiovascular research center was renamed the James T. Willerson Center for Cardiovascular Modeling and Simulation on Oct. 26. Willerson is a distinguished UT-Austin alumnus, president emeritus of the Texas Heart Institute and former president of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

“He has been a friend and collaborator and an associate of ICES and the University of Texas for many years … because of his expertise in cardiovascular medicine and because ICES has a center for cardiovascular simulation,” said J. Tinsley Oden, director of ICES.

Willerson said the renaming is a great honor because he has loved UT since graduating with his undergraduate degree in 1961.

“It’s a wonderful honor,” Willerson said. “I have a love affair with the University of Texas at Austin. It prepared me well for a future career in medicine.”

As part of the ceremonial event to rename the cardiovascular research center the Willerson Center, a $5 million fundraising event was completed to go towards an endowment.

“The endowment will be used, in part, to fund doctoral students and post-doctoral fellows who are interested in doing cardiovascular research in the Center and ICES,” said Michael Sacks, director of the Willerson Center.

The Willerson Center pursues basic and applied research using computer models that are focused on the needs of an individual’s health goals, Oden said.

“Instead of making diagnoses on the basis of thousands of cases, we actually predict the functions of the cardiovascular system … using mathematical and computational models that are tuned to specifics of an individual,” Oden said. “This is patient-specific medicine, and (Willerson) is a proponent of this.”

Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the world, Oden said, and through ICES and the Willerson Center, researchers are working to combat heart disease.

“We’re going to save tens of thousands of lives by understanding the functions of individual hearts by designing medical procedures, therapies, drugs and so forth,” Oden said. “We’re going to advance cardiovascular science.”

The research being completed at the Willerson Center is looking for ways to improve cardiovascular health, Willerson said.

“(The research) focuses on imaging of blood vessels and finding new ways to treat heart disease, generally,” Willerson said. “(They are) trying to prevent heart attacks and strokes.”

J. Tinsley Oden, director of the Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences, received the 2013 Honda Prize for his works in the field of computational mechanics.

The Secretariat of the Honda Foundation, Norie Yamamoto, said Oden is widely credited with the early development of computational mechanics — an integration of mathematics, computer science, physics and applied mathematics in order to solve problems in science and engineering.

“Oden’s work focuses on the theory and development of multi-scale models that influence events such as that of atoms and electrons to full-scale systems, such as machines, aircrafts and automobiles,” Yamamoto said.

The Honda Prize, a nonprofit established by the founders of the Honda Motor Company, is given to a person who has achieved results in the field of ecotechnology, which is described as “technology that advocates both the natural and human environments,” according to its website. It was established in 1980 and comes with a 10 million yen prize — which is a little less than $100,000. Oden is the first UT professor to receive the prize.

Monica Kortsha, informational writer for the Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences, said Oden’s impact has been profound and wide-ranging. 

“The Honda Prize recognized his role as an early supporter and cheerleader of sorts for [computational science], which in its early days was not being applied much outside of select industries,” Kortsha said.

Kortsha said computational science enables physical questions to be investigated in the digital realm. The science investigates theories via models, evaluates structures before they are built and studies past and future scenarios in present time.

“Computational science works are defining problems mathematically, and then uses a computer to discretize those mathematical models into numerical parts that describe a physical phenomena,” Kortsha said. “These numerics are then often used to construct complex visual simulations.”

Kortsha said investigating scientific phenomena computationally allows easy consideration of multiple scenarios, as well as experimentation with designs that can be tested digitally, saving time and resources.

“It enables scientists to research problems that have been conventionally too complex to confidently study through traditional means, such as the movement of the earth’s tectonic plates, storm surges caused by hurricanes, and massive-scale drug screening,” Kortsha said.

Yamamoto said the computational mechanics Oden works in has allowed for the development of computer simulation technology, which is widely utilized in various fields and has improved product quality and safety.

Oden received the 34th Honda Prize on Nov. 18 at an award ceremony in Tokyo, where he delivered the laureate lecture.

“I was stunned and gratified to be treated with such hospitality,” Oden said. “My wife and I were treated like royalty.”

Clarification: Due to an editing error, this article has been updated from its original version. The Honda Prize was established in 1980.

The O’Donnell Foundation committed a $9.3 million gift to the UT Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences to support the program’s students and faculty.

The institute’s graduate program, ICES Computational Science, Engineering and Mathematics Graduate Studies, allows students to pursue a multidisciplinary computational science degree that includes faculty and subjects from 18 different departments.

The donation will be used over the next five years to fund three areas. A $3 million portion of the grant will go to the creation of 12 additional graduate student fellowships, bringing the program total to 34 students. Another $1.3 million is designated for faculty support. The final $5 million will support faculty recruitment efforts to improve the quality of instruction for the program.

Since 1983, Peter O’Donnell, his wife Edith and the O’Donnell Foundation have given more than $135 million to the University. Peter O’Donnell has worked with the institute director, Tinsley Oden, for more than 20 years and said he considers Oden an inspired leader.

“His vision for the potential of computational simulation and modeling was my inspiration to support his work and that of his colleagues,”  O’Donnell said. “[What is] very important to me is the fact that the ICES faculty is preparing the next generation of young computational leaders who will continue the work toward discoveries to improve every aspect of our lives.”

Robert Moser, the institute’s deputy director and professor, said he is looking forward to using the donation to recruit new faculty.

“We’re very excited about the opportunity we have to attract some of the best scientists and mathematicians to the University of Texas,” Moser said. “That’s one of the most exciting things we do, and I think that helps out in a big way.”

Graduate student Nick Fitzsimmons, a current recipient of the institute’s fellowship, said he agreed the introduction of new faculty would contribute to the learning environment of the program. Fitzsimmons said he thinks it is wonderful more students will be given fellowship opportunities.

“It is pretty important that some of this money goes toward us new researchers so that we have time as poor graduate students to … focus on the things about this University that make it great,” Fitzsimmons said.

I must say I was upset after reading Friday’s column, “The Texas Stampede.” I am pleased that students are starting to realize how important scientific computing is, but I am disappointed at how little they know about the programs and opportunities that UT offers.

The column calls for an interdisciplinary computational program to be created. Little did the author know that such a program already exists on our campus. In fact, the Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences (ICES) offers a program that is almost exactly like the one he described. It is well-known and appreciated in the computational science community, both in academia and industry. In fact, the original online article linked to a page about Stampede that mentioned ICES explicitly.

The graduate program is called Computational Science, Engineering and Mathematics (CSEM). Students in the program are required to demonstrate proficiency in three areas: mathematics, computation and scientific application.

Students are required to take classes in each of the three areas and then choose an applied area to focus on. Applications that students focus on range from business and finance to engineering and traditional science. This is the framework of the program that Friday’s article describes and then claims does not exist at UT.

I realize that the author of the article may have been trying to say that UT does not have an undergraduate program of this nature. Although CSEM does not have an exact undergraduate counterpart, it does have a Computational Science and Engineering Certificate Program for undergraduates who are interested in computational science. I commend the author for being able to envision such a program without knowing that it exists. However, that the presence of such a program at UT and its success have been ignored and improperly researched is unfortunate.

— Kathryn Farrell
Graduate student, Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences