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University Institute Offers a New Path to Scientific Collaboration and Knowledge

Giving News

ICES Director Tinsley Oden

J. Tinsley Oden, associate vice president for research at UT, is the founding director of ICES.

For centuries the quest for knowledge has relied on the two pillars of the scientific method: hypothesis and experimentation. The process has served us well, but it has its limits. Scientific inquiry is the work of humans, after all, and we’re slow.

What if lengthy and complex inquiries could be completed much more quickly and efficiently? Our ability to improve our quality of life would be unprecedented.

An emerging mechanism of scientific inquiry is making this possible. Simulation-based engineering and science provides a new path to knowledge that complements and extends hypothesis and experimentation. This new third pillar to the scientific method combines advances in mathematical modeling with computer performance to revolutionize how we address the grand challenges of the day — those problems that must be surmounted in order to achieve a sustainable, economically robust future.

So what is UT’s role in this new arena? Look no further than the Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences, or ICES for short. Launched in 2003 and now hitting its stride, ICES is an umbrella, an incubator, and a catalyst rolled into one. It provides an infrastructure for programs in computational engineering and sciences that is unique in academia and that underscores the wide-ranging interdisciplinary applications of this emerging field.

As the eminent engineering and math professor at UT and the director of ICES, J. Tinsley Oden, pictured above, said in the Bulletin of the International Association for Computational Mechanics, “Computational engineering and science . . . is being heralded as one of the most important developments in recorded history. It has created a revolution in engineering, dramatically expanding the scope and fidelity of engineering analysis and design. It has enabled the study and prediction of myriad events, including the behavior of aircraft, ships, automobiles, trains, and space vehicles; of electrical circuits, computer chips, waveguides, and antennas; of machine parts, piping systems, oil reservoirs, submicron devices, semiconductors; of galaxies, supernovas, black holes; of bio and biomedical systems, blood flow, cellular structures; of ocean currents, geological events, the atmosphere and weather; of every conceivable product in modern technology and every natural phenomena in the physical universe.

“It will thus impact virtually every aspect of human life, our health, communication, security, transportation, and quality of life and it will open vistas not available before to the human species. This is the great promise of computational engineering and science.”

Whew! Let’s take a closer look at just a couple of those areas, energy and medicine.

Computer models like this one signify the future of energy exploration

Computer models like this one signify the future of energy exploration.

Ensuring Our Energy Future

As the planet’s energy needs grow, we must optimize the use of our limited resources even as we minimize their environmental impact. How we obtain and use fossil fuels is particularly important. Carbon dioxide is among the greenhouse gases emitted when fossil fuels are burned, such as during the oil-refining process. ICES researchers are exploring how to collect CO2 and store it underground. Just as forecasters observe the atmosphere to predict the weather, virtual models of underground fluids can predict whether a site would be suitable for carbon storage. These sites could be vast: about half as large as Texas. By modeling how fluids behave underground, researchers can also help us extract the most oil possible from rock formations and bring it to the surface.

Such work has major positive implications for our energy security, both in the exploration for new oil and natural gas resources and in maximizing production from existing reservoirs. Making the most of both new and existing reservoirs requires a range of advanced technologies; ICES brings together mathematicians, engineers, geoscientists, and computing experts in a cooperative environment with industry to test new concepts and develop solutions to real-world problems. ICES is working with corporate partners like Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and IBM to foster communication between researchers and the corporate community and be a gateway for collaborative research efforts.

protein mockup

ICES scientists examine proteins like these at the molecular level.

Medical Breakthroughs

Some of the most promising work at ICES is in the world of medicine, particularly drug development and the treatment of cardiovascular disease and cancer. Until now the practice of medicine has been reactive, based on past observation. Advanced modeling, however, can help determine with a high degree of probability what will work on an individual’s unique anatomy.

Each year more than a million Americans suffer acute heart attacks, and almost half of them die. Cardiovascular disease is the world’s leading cause of death and the most costly component of health-care spending. Simulation-based engineering and science could help take the guesswork out of patient care and identify the best treatments before they are administered. It may also prove invaluable in designing new cardiovascular medical devices.

Cancer is the second-most common cause of death in the U.S. One difficulty in treating it is that people’s bodies are so different. Working with the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, ICES is discovering ways to tailor treatment to the individual. Technology now being tested shows exactly what is going on inside a patient during treatment. Real-time feedback guided by predictions of computer models depicts how a patient’s body is reacting to therapies, allowing diseased cells to be destroyed in minimally invasive ways while protecting healthy cells. The next step is to model tumors to see how fast they are growing and how they will react to chemotherapy and radiation. That will bring us much closer to the ultimate goal: curing cancer.

Investing in ICES

With 90 participating faculty and hundreds of graduate students representing 17 academic departments, ICES offers researchers the ability to collaborate on interdisciplinary projects to simulate the workings of the human body, design new medicines, study physical phenomena, and perform engineering analysis and design. Headquartered in the cutting-edge ACES Building, ICES faculty hold positions in the Cockrell School of Engineering, College of Natural Sciences, McCombs School of Business, and Jackson School of Geosciences.

The University is seeking $12 million to complete funding for a $48 million permanent endowment. The objective? Nothing less than attracting the world’s foremost scientists and engineers so that they can look into the future — and change it.

Learn more about ICES. To help join the effort, contact Joe Youngblood in the University Development Office by email or at 512-475-7085.

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