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Full Circle: IBA Alumna 'Pays It Forward'

It worked the way it was supposed to work.

When the AAPG/AAPG Foundation initiated the Imperial Barrel Award back in 2007, there was a sense – a hope, really – that participating students would take the unique collaborative learning experience with them as they pursued careers in geology and academia, making both the better for it.

And – while it’s an overused term – pay it forward.

Which brings us to AAPG member Elizabeth Hajek (she’s the one with the baby), assistant professor for Penn State University, which finished second and won the Selley Cup at this year’s IBA finals in Denver.

What makes her story so special is that Hajek, who was the team’s faculty adviser, was also a member of the University of Wyoming IBA team when she was an undergraduate student.

Benefits of Experience

“When I participated, we had some trouble even getting to a place where we could begin data analysis,” she said of that earlier experience.

“That taught me that logistical support, like lining up software packages, is essential to being able to spend your time actually doing the technical work IBA demands,” she said. “As an adviser, I spent a lot of time trying to minimize technological barriers in order to help ensure that the team could focus their energy on the geoscience work.”

Practically, that meant in late December 2014 she worked with Penn State’s IT office to ensure software licenses were up-to-date and her team members had access to the right workstations and servers.

“We also started a few weeks before the datasets were released by practicing loading seismic data, well logs and doing all the basic analyses they were likely to need to do with the competition dataset (interpret faults and horizons, do petrophysical analysis, and build 1-D basin models, for example),” she said.

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It worked the way it was supposed to work.

When the AAPG/AAPG Foundation initiated the Imperial Barrel Award back in 2007, there was a sense – a hope, really – that participating students would take the unique collaborative learning experience with them as they pursued careers in geology and academia, making both the better for it.

And – while it’s an overused term – pay it forward.

Which brings us to AAPG member Elizabeth Hajek (she’s the one with the baby), assistant professor for Penn State University, which finished second and won the Selley Cup at this year’s IBA finals in Denver.

What makes her story so special is that Hajek, who was the team’s faculty adviser, was also a member of the University of Wyoming IBA team when she was an undergraduate student.

Benefits of Experience

“When I participated, we had some trouble even getting to a place where we could begin data analysis,” she said of that earlier experience.

“That taught me that logistical support, like lining up software packages, is essential to being able to spend your time actually doing the technical work IBA demands,” she said. “As an adviser, I spent a lot of time trying to minimize technological barriers in order to help ensure that the team could focus their energy on the geoscience work.”

Practically, that meant in late December 2014 she worked with Penn State’s IT office to ensure software licenses were up-to-date and her team members had access to the right workstations and servers.

“We also started a few weeks before the datasets were released by practicing loading seismic data, well logs and doing all the basic analyses they were likely to need to do with the competition dataset (interpret faults and horizons, do petrophysical analysis, and build 1-D basin models, for example),” she said.

The students needed to be ready, too, to know their strengths and weaknesses.

“Most of our students hadn’t done these things before, so I had them figure out how to do key tasks and make tutorials to teach their other team members,” she said.

“Before the dataset was released, my goal was to make sure that every team member could handle data loading, seismic interpretation, well-log analysis, and basin modeling.”

Forging a Team

Having gone through the process before, she had first-hand experience on what they could get out of the competition.

“My goal for the students was that they would leave this experience with the confidence that they could use their understanding of first-principles to tackle any task thrown at them in industry,” said Hajek.

It was, in every sense, a team sport – by design.

“We didn’t have a ‘geophysicist,’ a ‘petrophysicist,’ a ‘stratigrapher,’” she said. “My hope was that by the end, ideally, each person on the team would be able to explain the process for each step, whether or not they actually did that work themselves.”

To ensure this, leadership responsibilities were assigned based on students’ interests (a balance of their experience and new things they wanted to learn). In addition, each task or topic (like basin modeling or petrophysics) got a primary and one or more secondary/support people taking responsibility for its completion.

It was unorthodox.

“I didn’t lecture,” she said. “(I) just hung out and helped re-direct or troubleshoot as necessary.”

It worked.

“It was really amazing what they could do by the end of the contest – in many cases they were going from having no experience with something to performing at a level of someone who’s taken a few industry classes to learn that skill,” she said. “I just did my best to facilitate the process by making sure they had the resources they need to move forward to make decisions and prioritize work towards a final product.”

Hajek said she marvels at the students involved: Scott Karduck, Tramond Baisden, Gabriella Arroyo, Jacob Hagedorn and Nathan Stevens.

“Oh man, they worked so hard!” she said, drawing out those last two words for emphasis. “They easily each put in 60 hours a week during the entire eight weeks – probably more like 80 by the end. “It’s a ridiculous amount of time and effort.

“I also have to give our team credit for helping me out, too,” Hajek added. “I had a baby in January, so my son, Theo, actually participated in many of our team meetings (he rested in a baby carrier as I bounced around the room trying to keep him content and sleeping). They were very generous about having a tiny helper around the lab!”

She knew the pitfalls, the frustrations.

“I warned them at the beginning that part of the experience is learning how to work with a team under pressure; that inevitably results in some friction,” she said. “When you get five smart, creative, independent people (and me) mulling over a compelling dataset, you’re bound to get a wide range of perspectives, and when you’re exhausted from working long hours, it can be hard to keep a level head about the process.

“We definitely had some ‘animated’ discussions, shall we say!”

‘Great Work Should Be Inspired’

You’ve read in other pieces about IBA and about the hard work and long hours, all of which Hajek experienced at Wyoming and as faculty adviser at Penn State.

But that isn’t the whole story.

“It’s also a good lesson (if not a heartbreaking one) about how much work never gets shown,” Hajek said. “I think the hardest part of the contest is distilling down an indescribable amount of work into a 25 minute presentation. Literally, weeks worth of someone’s effort will get condensed into two sentences on one slide – sometimes not shown at all. But that work has to be done; they couldn’t have made sound decisions or given a convincing recommendations without all that work. There are no shortcuts.”

In talking about her own experience with IBA as a student, she mentioned the invaluable help of past AAPG President Randi Martinsen, her mentor.

“Her enthusiasm was just so infectious, that I feel like we just kind of got swept along by her motivation. I don’t remember Randi being ‘tough’ on us, but I definitely remember feeling pressure to do great work because she made it so clear how cool, exciting and important exploration is.

“I think that’s the way it should be,” she says, believing students should be inspired to do great work, not be bullied or pushed into it.

“Also, Randi’s always modeled a ‘pay it forward’ mentality,” she said, “so I’m glad to be able to take what I learned and help create valuable learning experiences for up-and-coming students.”

In short, she said something you hope she’d say – and something you’d hope every faculty adviser would say about participating in IBA.

“I think any IBA participant, on any team anywhere, will agree that the value of the experience is hard won,” she said, “and I doubt many in the midst of the contest would describe it as ‘pleasant’ or ‘fun.’”

But then, if you’re lucky, you get to pay it forward. And bring your baby to the award ceremony.

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