Not everyone can be an outstanding student of geology.
AAPG Honorary member Paul Potter said his undergraduate work was mostly mediocre.
“I got a lot of Cs, and a few As,” he recalled.
And geology was Potter’s second choice of majors after he decided his attempt to earn a degree in physics wasn’t working out. As he tells it, some of his professors considered his geology work lackluster, and couldn’t have expected him to go far in the profession.
Fast-forward to today: at the AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition (ACE) in Calgary, Canada in June, Potter will receive the Sidney Powers Memorial Award, the Association’s most distinguished honor.
It will be the latest of numerous awards for the famed geologist and educator, including the Pettijohn Award for Excellence in Sedimentology from the Society of Sedimentary Geologists, the Mather Medal for contributions to Ohio geology studies, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Professional Geologists of Indiana and the AAPG Eastern Section’s Outstanding Educator Award.
‘Just About Everywhere’
Potter began his career as a geologist with the Illinois State Geological Survey in 1952. He then moved into academia, first as an assistant professor at Indiana University and then progressing to professor and eventually professor emeritus of geology – his current title – at the University of Cincinnati.
He also began consulting in the petroleum industry in the 1950s and has served as consultant or special instructor with Shell, Schlumberger, Total, Petrobras and several other companies.
His research activities have included work with the U.S. Department of Energy, the Gas Research Institute, the National Geographic Society and many other organizations.
Along the way, he’s authored or co-authored a seemingly constant stream of papers and seven influential books.
The first two of those books were issued in the early 1960s, when Potter received a Guggenheim Fellowship and moved to Johns Hopkins University, where he began collaboration with Francis Pettijohn.
They produced “Paleocurrents and Basin Analysis” and “Atlas and Glossary of Sedimentary Structures,” which became standards. A later collaboration with Pettijohn and Raymond Siever led to the publication of “Sand and Sandstone” in 1972.
Potter’s area of geology fieldwork can be described as “just about everywhere” with a focus on 16 of the United States, Saskatchewan and Ontario in Canada, the Bahamas, Mexico, Spain, France, Italy, Algeria, Argentina, Brazil, Guayanas, Venezuela, Colombia, Chile and Peru.
In his peripatetic professional career he has constantly moved into new areas and bigger challenges.
“After about 10 years, I get bored with what I’m doing,” said Potter.
His studies of the geology of the greater Cincinnati area provide an insight into the forces that have shaped the city and its landscape and infrastructure.
Potter related that when he first moved to Cincinnati, he thought it would be boring geologically.
“But there’s a lot of interesting geology under every city,” he said.
In the 1990s, Potter began a seven-year period serving as an assistant professor of geosciences at Brazilian universities. He cited his work in Brazil as an example of an experience outside North America that prolonged his career, “made me a much wiser person and kept me interested.”
“I had worked in Paris when I was very young. And I had been to the Sahara Desert. I was interested in foreign languages,” he said.
He’d already traveled to Europe 13 times “but it was nothing like stepping off into Brazil,” he recalled.
“I went when I was 67 because if I’d had to put down my age as 70, I thought, ‘No one would give a job to a 70-year-old man,’” he said.
Not everyone can take advantage of their youth at age 67 and start a new chapter in their career.
“It’s painful. When I sat on an airplane going to Brazil I thought, ‘Should I be doing this?’ And I said to myself, ‘Paul Potter, if you don’t have the guts to do this, you aren’t going to do anything,’” he recalled.
Based on his extensive experience and background in geology, Potter suggested three major lessons a professional geologist should learn:
- Learn how to work with people.
“Everyone in modern science has to do that, almost. And working with people outside American culture – that’s very important,” he said.
He feels his work in other countries and his interest in languages other than English have given him a better perspective on the profession.
“It’s made me more respectful of non-Americans,” Potter noted.
“At various times I have given about D-minus talks in French, Spanish and Portuguese. That’s a learning experience, to see how other people express ideas,” he said.
Potter earned his doctorate in geology from the University of Chicago but also acquired a master’s degree in statistics from the University of Illinois.
Geology today involves contributions from numerous other scientific disciplines, so the geologist needs a broader view, he said. While people often note the world’s rapid change in technology, they sometimes overlook advances in science.
“There’s no end to science,” Potter said.
“Science is just like technology. M.K. Hubbard said we were going to run out of oil, but he forgot about technology,” he observed.
- Learn how to write and communicate well.
“Learn to sell a subject in writing. Learn to convince people in words and text,” Potter said.
Geologists should be able to write a scientific paper “with minimal jargon.”
“That can be hard but that’s what you need to do,” he added.
“I had never thought of that as a student until one day (when) I was out in the Adirondacks. I was with a European professor. He said to me, ‘Paul, you know one thing every geologist should do is give back to the community.’ That’s lost now,” Potter said.
Geologists can work on a landslide study, lead sixth-graders on field trips, write popular articles about geology, serve as advisers to politicians or boards and give back in many other ways, Potter noted.
“You have to give up something to do it. But it’s so easy to do,” he said. “Most of these things are not expensive, except in terms of time and gasoline.”
What all the above ideas have in common is “getting outside your own envelope, and not just for a couple of weeks,” he observed.
Better Than Expected
Potter’s view of geology in contemporary higher education might help explain his own approach to academics and even his partial inattention as a young student.
“Too many departments today want to follow the National Science Foundation model, which is to do high science,” he said.
Potter described high science as “science that wants to use not field work, not subsurface geology, but they want to support people who do theoretical work in geology.”
Potter obviously is more interested in geology that actually exists in the real world.
His advice to beginning geologists is to always broaden your horizons.
“One thing that never fails is to do things better and better and wider and wider. A lot of people have had successful careers that way,” he said.
What would he have done if geology hadn’t worked out as a career?
Economics or banking, definitely, Potter stated.
“I would have liked to have been a banker. I think banking would have been interesting – I’ve always admired bankers,” he said.
But geology did work out for him as a career, in a big way, and in a way others might not have guessed.
“I would say that I’ve turned out a lot better than some of my professors would have expected,” he said.