After 44 Years of Building Computational Science at UT, ICES Founder and Director Tinsley Oden Steps into New Role

ICES Founding Director Tinsley Oden celebrates with benefactors Edith and Peter O'Donnell at the dedication of the O'Donnell Building in 2013.

“I have frequently declared that Tinsley Oden is one of the greatest value creators in this university or any other,” said former UT Austin President Larry Faulkner, who played a key role in the establishment of The Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences (ICES) at The University of Texas at Austin during his 1998-2006 tenure as university president. “He knows how to choose scientific problems with great leverage on the future; he can identify and recruit colleagues with top-level talent to address those problems; he is driven and he produces; and he brings joy to it all. Tinsley is of a rare, rare breed, ever treasured where it can be found.”

Now, after 44 years of leading ICES and its predecessors, Oden is stepping down from his position as founding director, his contributions celebrated with a reception in his honor by host UT President Greg Fenves and former UT President Faulkner. While he will remain associate vice president for research at UT, Oden begins a new era in which he will focus his ideas, creativity and enthusiasm on research and scientific goals. This includes continuing to educate the next generation of computational scientists, and collaborating with colleagues to advance the future of computational science.

Robert Moser, the deputy director of ICES and recipient of the NASA Medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement, will serve as the interim director of the institute until a new director is named later in the year.

ICES has built a reputation as one of the best places to do interdisciplinary research in applied math and computational engineering and science.

In 2017, its graduate program was ranked No.1 in the world by the Center for World University Rankings. Twenty percent of its core faculty members have been elected to national academies worldwide. And it has received hundreds of millions of dollars in research grants to advance both theoretical knowledge and seek solutions to real world problems, from tumor growth to storm surge flooding, with the value of active research grants and contracts in 2017 totaling more than $73 million.

These accomplishments are built on a unique research environment that consolidates scientific knowledge from across UT and welcomes visiting researchers from across the world; provides access to the world’s leading high performance computing technology at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC); and trains and supports the next generation of computational scientists in its graduate and postdoctoral research programs, as well as a summer research internship for undergraduates.

This exceptional environment is largely thanks to the vision of ICES founder and director, Tinsley Oden.

Oden’s dedication to building a research institute for computational sciences on the UT campus goes much further back than the founding of ICES in 2003. In 1973, the same year he was hired as a UT professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, he started the Texas Institute for Computational Mechanics (TICOM), a research group for UT faculty and students. Oden’s ability to demonstrate the power and potential of computational science helped attract the funding and research expertise that transformed a small, interdisciplinary research group into what is now a world-renown research institute.

Oden provided the vision for ICES as a scientific research institute. But building it wouldn’t have been possible without support from UT administration and donors, most importantly Peter O’Donnell, Jr., the philanthropist and founder of the O’Donnell Foundation, which has given approximately $143 million to ICES and the research institute that preceded it.

Oden and O’Donnell first met in 1990 when O’Donnell reached out to UT to learn more about computational science—a subject he was introduced to while serving on an oversight board for the Superconducting Super Collider to be built in Waxahachie, Texas. Oden was then the leader of TICOM—a group that had rapidly made a name for itself, going from a weekly meeting series to hosting the First International Conference on Computational Methods in Nonlinear Mechanics in less than a year from its founding.

The Superconducting Super Collider that first sparked O’Donnell’s interest was never completed due to lack of funds. But the meeting with Oden convinced O’Donnell that computational science would be an essential part of future research and industry. The meeting set in motion a plan to revamp TICOM into a high-power research institute.

“I think that as a country we need to do more research and train more people in applied and computational mathematics,” O’Donnell wrote to Oden in 1991. “Because of your distinguished and nationally recognized work in aerospace engineering and computational mechanics, I would like to ask you to head an effort to develop a strong applied mathematics program within the Texas Institute for Computational Mechanics.”

In 1993 the Texas Institute for Computational and Applied Mathematics (TICAM) was born, with Oden its director. The new institute established a graduate degree program in computational and applied mathematics, while UT and the O’Donnell foundation committed funds to hire new faculty at the institute within the colleges of engineering and natural sciences. Ivo Babuska, Mary Wheeler, Todd Arbogast, Clint Dawson, Irene Gamba, Luis Caffarelli, Thomas Hughes, Bjorn Engquist, and Leszek Demkowicz —international thought leaders in the computational world—were among the first hires.

As TICAM became more established, the need for high performance computing power and a designated building became evident. In 1999, Oden presented a list of computing initiatives to a task force convened by then President Faulkner, which led to the creation of the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) in 2001.

“ICES, and its predecessor TICAM—both led by Dr. Oden—brought together the researchers at UT that really created the need for a center like TACC,” said TACC Director Dan Stanzione. “TACC was created in response to the push to assemble in ICES the leading computational researchers in the world; and in turn, they would need world-class computing facilities.”

Shortly before the naming of TACC, the Applied Computational Engineering and Sciences Building (later renamed the Peter O’Donnell, Jr. Building in 2013) was completed in 2000 after less than three years from conception. The structure was designed to provide a central hub on campus for computational science research and education.

With a new computing center and building in place, computational science research at UT had again reached a new stage. In 2003, TICAM was renamed the Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences.

Since then, computational sciences at the institute have only expanded in scope and in expertise. ICES has entered into research partnerships with the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia and the UT Dell Medical School. It received Moser’s $18.7 million, five-year grant from the Department of Energy to study uncertainty quantification in computational modeling, which led to the creation of the Center for Predictive Engineering and Computational Sciences (PECOS) in 2007. And the establishment of the $48 million Moncrief Simulation-Based Engineering Science Endowment in 2010 will support research into grand challenges—a term that describes some of the biggest challenges in science and engineering, such as developing new materials, improving climate models, and understanding the genome—for years to come.

Looking back on a career spent building computational sciences at UT—from proposing plans to recruiting faculty—Oden said that the strategy that made ICES a success ultimately came down to making a research environment that the very best people want to join, and want to continue improving themselves.

“It’s a strategy of creating a place that people would want to call home,” Oden said.


1973—Tinsley Oden joins The University of Texas at Austin as a professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics and founds the research group TICOM, the Texas Institute for Computational Mechanics.

1977—TICOM recognized as a university-wide organized research unit.

1990—Oden meets with philanthropist Peter O’Donnell, Jr. about computational science research at UT.

1991—O’Donnell requests a five-year plan from Oden to develop a strong applied mathematics program to extend the scope of TICOM.

1993—O’Donnell Foundation and UT Austin administration approve a new applied mathematics research unit called the Texas Institute for Computational and Applied Mathematics (TICAM), and new graduate program in Computational and Applied Mathematics.

1997—O’Donnell Foundation begins construction of Applied Computational Engineering Sciences Building (ACES), a central hub for computational science research on the UT Austin campus.

1999—A UT task force endorses a plan presented by Oden to overhaul high performance computing at the university. The computing center is renamed the Texas Advanced Computing Center two years later.

2000—ACES Building completed and officially dedicated to UT Austin.

2003—The Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences founded.

2013—The ACES Building renamed The O’Donnell Building.

2018—Oden steps down as ICES director.

Story by Monica Kortsha

Posted: Jan. 24, 2018