“This win is a testament to the wonderful UTEP students who year after year put in the long hours and frustrations of putting together a major research project and presentation in eight weeks.”
That’s Richard “Rip” Langford, professor of the University of Texas at El Paso’s Department of Geological Sciences.
He’s talking about the department’s Imperial Barrel Award (IBA) first-place finish that was announced at AAPG’s Annual Convention and Exhibition held this year in Calgary, Canada.
Other finalists were the teams from Penn State University and the Colorado School of Mines, who won second and third place, respectively.
Mostly, though, Langford is talking about a mindset – about all the intangibles of bringing a group of students together for such a project.
As its faculty adviser, Langford knows firsthand what that takes.
“Our students are exceptionally hard working,” he said, speaking of team members Andy Anderson, Andre Llanos, Alan Vennemann, Eric Bergersen and Patrick Rea. “They sacrifice two months before the sectional meeting or IBA. They fall behind in their other classes and delay their thesis research.”
This last point is an important one, which can be an impediment to such endeavors.
“We could not participate as often as we have without the support of our faculty who allow students leeway while they are working on IBA,” he said.
And work they did.
“We set up two times during the week when all of them could get together to meet and practice. The rest of the time, they lived in a classroom that we have instrumented with three computers networked into Petrel,” he recounted.
One would assume he’s being hyperbolic on the “lived in a classroom” statement and they were permitted to go home to sleep, but it’s tough to know, for this is serious business for serious students. His directions to them – and he insists this is their operation – were simple.
“I just tell them to come up with a team and let them know that teamwork and presentation skills are as important as their technical skills,” he said.
To that end, there is no hierarchy. It’s communal. There are no “go-to” students, no superstars.
“I look at this primarily as an educational opportunity, rather than a competition, so one of my few rules is that every student has to do everything,” said Langford, which means that, while one student might be studying the tectonic setting, stratigraphy or regional production, others will have to correlate at least one set of faults and create a framework of seismic horizons.
“Each student in turn performs a log-to-seismic correlation and converts the volume from time to depth. So, typically, two or three students are madly correlating seismic horizons in the lab, while the others split up to research everything from depth/porosity-trends to known maturation from nearby fields, or studies core information provided in the dataset to determine potential reservoir.”
Playing in the Big League
While its reputation is not often mentioned in the same breath with other heavy-hitters among Texas schools, like the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M, UTEP’s Department of Geological Studies is quite comfortable on the big stage.
“We have been to the IBA finals five times,” Langford said, “and have gotten familiar with the ‘big leagues.’”
UTEP’s Department of Geological Sciences, in fact, is more than 102 years old and was originally named the Texas College of Mines. It presently has 20 faculty members and 150 undergraduate students along with 50 masters and 25 doctoral candidates.
This was the school’s ninth year in competition, and its first win, coming out of the Southwest Section, which includes Baylor University, Sul Ross State University, Texas Christian University, Texas Tech University, University of Texas at Arlington and the University of Texas at Dallas.
In the first years of the competition, there were only one or two schools competing, which Langford admits helped to fill the trophy case at the school.
Now, he said, things have changed.
“The Southwest Section has done an amazing job at promoting the IBA and this year most of the schools in the section were competing,” he said. “I think the competition in the section is as tough as in the finals now.”
Opportunities and Rewards
As to the competition itself and the datasets provided, due to their proprietary nature (they are provided by a variety of companies to AAPG), Langford can’t go into specifics.
“I can just tell you our dataset was in the Barents Sea. AAPG selects and distributes the datasets in January. Dataset distribution marks the beginning of IBA. Before this, you have no idea what part of the world you might be studying,” he said.
He will say, however, that the datasets provided give the students opportunities to work with most types of real world data.
“It gives a tremendous opportunity for our students to analyze and integrate the wide variety of data used in industry,” said Langford.
And he was amazed by what they brought him.
“Perhaps the key turning point,” he said – the moment he knew it was a special year, “was when the students presented me their prospects. At first I didn’t believe they had closure and made them carefully outline their traps and explain why they thought they had seals. They had the confidence to stick to their guns and I think it showed in their presentation.”
The award comes with a $20,000 prize, which will be plowed back into the operation.
“We have set up an account to be used by our students, with the IBA teams getting first dibs,” said Langford.
“In the past we have used our winnings to send students to short courses, arranged for software training and gone on rig trips. With this enhanced funding, we may provide some small scholarships and try to expand our IBA computational facilities,” Langford said.
Which means you can probably expect to see more UTEP students posing with IBA trophies and giant checks in the years to come.