University of Texas at Austin


Computational Sciences Visionary J. Tinsley Oden Celebrates 50 years at UT Austin

By Joanne Foote

Published July 17, 2023

J. Tinsley Oden was firmly planted at The University of Texas at Austin long before the What Starts Here Changes the World  branding existed. There is no doubt, however, that he may be the one of the reasons this statement is so relevant. 

Oden, who is credited with the term ‘computational mechanics,’ has spent the last 50 years of his career at UT Austin, and he is the founding director for the institute that now bears his name: The Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences. At times, it’s difficult to separate Oden the man from Oden the Institute - they are intertwined like branches on a mature tree. 

On the cusp of its half-century anniversary, which will be celebrated this September, the seed for the interdisciplinary Institute was planted by Oden. With support from multiple university presidents, Peter O’Donnell and the O’Donnell Foundation (ODF), and W.A. ‘Tex’ Moncrief, the Oden Institute, which began with minimal initial funding and no building to call home, is now a renowned research Institute in the Peter O’Donnell Building, with a global reach. 

A Louisiana native with now deep Texas roots, Oden, often clad in his black cowboy boots at the Institute, earned his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Louisiana State University in 1959, and his PhD in Engineering Mechanics from Oklahoma State University in 1962. His academic career took off at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, where he taught for nine years and was chairman in the Department of Engineering Mechanics. 

One day it hit me, this is where the world is going - concepts in computers and solving problems in physics, mathematics, and mechanics. I saw the need to pull them all together into a unified approach.

— J. Tinsley Oden

While teaching six courses, he was in turn educating himself as much as his students in disciplines that weren’t part of his original degree, and an idea was born. “One day it hit me, this is where the world is going - concepts in computers and solving problems in physics, mathematics, and mechanics. I saw the need to pull them all together into a unified approach.” 

Oden connected these disciplines into a hefty manuscript. “I wrote a book,” he said, with a twinkle in his eye. Finite Elements of Nonlinear Continua, first published in 1972, was groundbreaking, merging ideas across a spectrum of sciences. 

“I attempted to draw together both the fundamentals of continuum mechanics and modern methods of numerical analysis. When these two subjects are brought together, each acquires new meaning and significance…and in retrospect, may appear far more natural than many of the classical treatments of applied mechanics,” stated the book’s preface.


Oden with his original manuscript of Finite Elements of Nonlinear Continua. Credit: Joanne Foote

Shortly after the book’s publication, Oden arrived at UT Austin in 1972 on a sabbatical as a visiting professor and in 1973 he was hired as a UT professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics. “My daughter was about to be born, and there was a joke about her being a native Texan -  I accepted the offer.” Shortly after the birth of his daughter, he started the Texas Institute for Computational Mechanics (TICOM), a research group for faculty members and students, and the institute was born.

“At the time I didn’t know then what it meant in terms of an institute. The timing was perfect in terms of where the world was going in computer modeling and solving the most difficult problems,” said Oden. “I’ve been very fortunate to have good deans, the support of visionary UT Austin presidents, including Peter Flawn and Larry Faulkner, and good management that could see the future with me.” 

Oden’s first lab wasn’t much more than twice the size of his current office. Imagine a classroom with walls papered in computational results, and a little 12-processor computer given to the Institute by Harris Corporation sitting in the middle of the floor. Although high-performance computing (HPC) dated back to the 1960s, the lab, dubbed TICOM Computing Laboratory, was central to the growth of computational science at UT Austin. Through the years, Oden nurtured and was vital to the growth of HPC. After years of advocating for greater HPC capability, the university supported the creation of the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC), which now houses the fastest academic supercomputer in the world.

Leszek Demkowicz, Assistant Director at the Oden Institute, and a professor in the departments of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, and Mathematics, has worked alongside Oden for 43 years. “I worked with him first as a postdoc and then as a ‘right hand,’ and finally as a colleague. His vision became my vision, and I have been working alongside Dr. Oden to implement his vision. He has created a unique environment for our work, both in terms of infrastructure and human environment, and projecting those ideas both nationally and worldwide.”

Dr. Oden credits the growth of the Institute to supporters and donors, however without his incredible and far-reaching vision, and his continued pursuit and unwavering dedication to computational sciences, none of this would have happened.

— Karen Willcox, current Oden Institute Director

The institute has gone through multiple name changes since 1973 and with each new name came growth, encompassing more disciplines. “A great deal of the success of the Oden Institute is due to the generous and enthusiastic support of the Peter O'Donnell Foundation and the generous donations of W.A. ‘Tex’ Moncrief. These donations led to the creation and continuous growth of a unique research and academic environment and included resources to support TICOM, followed by Texas Institute for Computational and Applied Mathematics (TICAM), and in 2003, the Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences (ICES), and now what is known as the Oden Institute,” stated Oden.

“Dr. Oden credits the growth of the Institute to supporters and donors, however without his incredible and far-reaching vision, and his continued pursuit and unwavering dedication to computational sciences, none of this would have happened,” said Karen Willcox, current Oden Institute Director.

In his unassuming candor, Oden stated, “I’m not terribly convincing; however, you just get the very best people to join the Institute, and by doing so it improves credibility, and soon our institute was ranked number one worldwide. O’Donnell was a tremendous asset and visionary partner along the journey.”

In a literal blink of an eye in terms of human history, computational science represents the single most important scientific advance in human history.

— J. Tinsley Oden

In the last decade, the blurred lines of sciences came into focus. Oden introduced the idea of the Third Pillar of Science. “Computational Science lies at the intersection of computer science, mathematics, science, medicine, and engineering. We translate information into a format digestible by a machine, the computer, to extend the scientific method,” he explained. 

“In a literal blink of an eye in terms of human history, computational science emerged, representing the single most important scientific advance in human history and it has transformed forever the way scientific discoveries are made and how engineering and medicine are done,” Oden stated.

In 2017, Oden stepped down as the director, and in 2019, the University of Texas System Board of Regents unanimously voted to rename the Institute he founded as the Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences. “Having the institute bear my name is the greatest event of a career; one for which I am forever humbled by and always grateful,” said Oden.

“Each one of us at the Institute has been personally touched by Dr. Oden’s vision, passion, leadership, and dedication. I could not be prouder to work alongside him and to continue to nurture his incredible legacy,” said Willcox.


Former UT President Gregory L. Fenves at the Institute renaming ceremony in 2019. Credit: Oden Institute

When asked if the institute as it exists today is what he envisioned 50 years ago, Oden simply replied no. “I couldn’t have dreamed of these things. In the future, there will be applications in areas we don’t even dream about right now. For example, how will you put an atmosphere on the moon? This won’t be solved without computational sciences and modeling. That’s an example of what faculty and future students at the institute will be involved with - training the next generation.”

Oden’s impact on future generations is guaranteed. The long hallway leading to Oden’s office is lined with accolades and honorary degrees, and capped off with a large, framed image of his professional legacy tree that shows the extent of his reach. He is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Science. He serves on numerous organizational, scientific, and advisory committees, and is the author of more than 800 scientific works including 57 books. He holds seven doctorates including six Doctor Honoris Causa. He has educated and advised over 50 PhD students and dozens of post-doctoral students.

Oden retired in May 2023, and plans to maintain much the same schedule. He comes to the university nearly daily and is continuing research. His current focus is on the development of computational models of tumor growth and their use in simulation of the effects of treatments of cancer at various scales, taking into account uncertainties in clinical data.

“My favorite aspects of working in a university environment include the opportunity to participate and compete in the grand process of scientific research in computational science and follow in the footsteps of great minds who laid down the foundations before me. It is a privilege to pass on acquired knowledge to the next generation,” Oden said.

Oden’s brilliant curiosity and vision have transformed our ability to analyze and understand the behavior of engineered and natural systems, resulting in more efficient, safe, economical, and effective products and processes across all areas of engineering, technology, medicine, and defense. Oden’s founding of the field of computational mechanics propelled a revolution, resulting in profound implications that touch everyday lives. From understanding weather systems behavior, to advances in cardiovascular systems, drug design and cancer research, clean energy production and resource conservation, to advancements in touchscreen technology – it’s hard to imagine the design of a product or process, or the understanding or prediction of a physical phenomenon, that has not been thoroughly transformed through computer modeling and simulation.  We can thank J. Tinsley Oden for that.