That the University of Louisiana at Lafayette won this year’s Imperial Barrel Award over colleges and universities from around the world may have surprised some – just not anyone who connected with the school.
“Not to be arrogant, but we always knew we could win it,” said AAPG member Brian Lock, an award-winning professor at UL Lafayette who was the team’s faculty adviser for the competition.
AAPG’s Imperial Barrel Award Program (IBA) is an annual prospective basin evaluation competition for geoscience students that’s become a global sensation. Prizes and scholarships are awarded, but what’s really coveted is the chance to compete and excel among, literally, the best student geoscience programs in the world.
And Lock, who received AAPG’s Grover E. Murray Memorial Distinguished Educator Award in 2006, wants to dispel any notion of UL’s win being an upset; this was not Butler sneaking into the NCAA basketball finals.
The school, which won the first prize of $20,000, deserved its place at the table.
“We won the Gulf Coast Section in 2008 (got to the final six internationally that year), won the Gulf Coast again in 2010 and were third to UT in 2011.”
UL’s IBA championship team consisted of AAPG members Joey Grimball, Mike Lahey and Chris Bijan Hatamian, plus Sarah Beth Maxwell and Daniel Dudley.
“This was the best experience of my academic career,” team captain Grimball said. “To actually win the international competition is a dream come true. This is an experience I will cherish for the rest of my life.”
Lock’s confidence comes from not only the quality of the students – which was obvious to most IBA observers – but from the courses UL offered in preparation.
“We had the background already. All of our courses emphasize practical, petroleum-related aspects of geology,” he said, “and we have independent, industry-sponsored subsurface mapping projects for the stronger students at the senior undergraduate/graduate level and a series of seismic geophysics courses.
“A good proportion of our students come from all across the United States,” he added, “and we are not a regional program in that sense. Students are attracted to UL by the strong petroleum emphasis.”
A Profitable Partnership
By Lock’s own admission, the program, which has 60 master of science students, is underfunded and has a small faculty (there are presently 12 faculty members on the School of Geosciences), but he says the program and its students are strongly supported by the local petroleum industry.
“Lafayette has a fairly large number of geologists working for small and medium sized companies who are extremely supportive,” he said. “These companies are mostly in walking distance of campus and our students are welcomed at monthly meeting of the Lafayette Geological Society, the Southwest Louisiana Geophysical Society and the local SPWLA chapter.”
Partnerships between universities and industry are nothing new, but in Lafayette, the relationship is symbiotic.
“A high proportion of our students work part-time as geotechs with these companies,” he added, “and many have access to data for theses through them.”
As to the presentation itself, the team prepared a proposal on a 5,000-square-mile tract of land inside Alaska’s North Slope and was charged with convincing a team of experts why three areas within that tract would be the best places to drill for oil.
“We knew we had a good presentation,” Lock said of this, the school’s third trip to finals – even if, he admits, “you never know how things will pan out until the judges render their verdicts.”
A Night to Remember
Last fall, Lock, who teaches subsurface geology, sedimentary petrology, stratigraphy and carbonate petrology, invited five students to be on the team.
“When I invite a student, I emphasize the amount of work that will be involved (typically eight-hour days or more every day for the full two months, often well into the night), so they come in with their eyes open,” he said. “Twice I have taken someone off the team if the work ethic is not there.”
Two month’s prior to Gulf Coast competition the North Slope data set was provided. In preparation, the students put the pieces together and the first dry-run presentation took place at the end of that month; the second month was spent refining, tweaking and perfecting the presentation and preparing for the possible judges questions. This prep included mock presentations to representatives from Lafayette’s oil community.
“The presentation has to be limited to 25 minutes,” he said, “with each of the five team members taking about five minutes. A ten-minute Q and A session follows.
“As anticipated, the students grew enormously as petroleum geologists through the competition. They learned a lot about the industry and how it functions and also were impressive as team members, no prima donnas,” Lock said. “Some 500 students participated worldwide this year in the competition and I think AAPG can be proud of how well the IBA has impacted the new generation.”
The night in Long Beach, though is something that will stay with him.
“It was heady stuff,” Lock said. “We were hoping to win, knew we were in with a good chance, but the actual announcement was still a highly emotional moment. A number of our alumni were there and the high-fives and hugs were simply amazing. I couldn’t speak for several minutes. Like the students, I was very moved by the experience.
“After three trips to the finals, we finally made it.”
UL alumna and AAPG member Mary Broussard observed the students “learned much about themselves during the process, and not only grew as petroleum geologists but also learned to work as a team, how to speak about geology in their own personal way. Petroleum geology has a language of its own; this team immersed themselves in it.”
Lock says learning that language is a matter of doing what comes natural.
“If you want to be a geologist,” he said, “you had better spend some time looking at rocks!”