A Pioneer in Organic Geochemistry

Sidney Powers Memorial Award

“I’m sorry Dr. Peters, but that’s not quite right.”

This year’s Sidney Powers Memorial Award winner, Kenneth Peters, recalls that moment fondly. He was in class, making a point of which he was certain, when a student raised his hand to challenge it.

“If I had to pick one aspect of my career that was most rewarding,” said Peters, who has more than 38 years of experience with Chevron, ExxonMobil, USGS, Stanford University and Schlumberger, “it would have to be those perceptive and sometimes irreverent comments or questions posed by students or colleagues.”

He said it taught him the virtue of humility.

“Many questions forced me to re-examine my explanations for how geoscience works, and some drove me to research that culminated in publications with new insights,” he said.

Niche, But Necessary

Peters, perhaps best known and celebrated for his work in organic geochemistry, said the field hasn’t always won him the kind of recognition represented by the Sidney Powers medal.

“A significant part of my career involved research and teaching in organic geochemistry,” he related. “Soon after I began my career in industry, I learned that geochemistry was at best a niche science. I recall walking a hallway at our field laboratory when a senior vice president from corporate headquarters passed me in the other direction. He called me back with a question: ‘Say, aren’t you Ken Peters the geochemist?’ After my response, he followed with: ‘Isn’t it true that geochemistry is a mature science?’”

Peters said that when the term “mature” is used to refer to any discipline, the implication is that there is nothing more that needs to be done.

“I have always regretted my feeble denial of that on-the-spot question. After more than 40 years in the profession, I have learned that we know far less about geochemistry and basin and petroleum system modeling than we should,” he said.

It is regrettable, he explained, because those disciplines are key to reducing risk in exploration and development for both conventional and unconventional resources, which makes them opportunities for fruitful research that will give a competitive edge.

Image Caption

Peters leads a discussion of the chemistry of diamondoids with colleagues at Biomarker Technologies.

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“I’m sorry Dr. Peters, but that’s not quite right.”

This year’s Sidney Powers Memorial Award winner, Kenneth Peters, recalls that moment fondly. He was in class, making a point of which he was certain, when a student raised his hand to challenge it.

“If I had to pick one aspect of my career that was most rewarding,” said Peters, who has more than 38 years of experience with Chevron, ExxonMobil, USGS, Stanford University and Schlumberger, “it would have to be those perceptive and sometimes irreverent comments or questions posed by students or colleagues.”

He said it taught him the virtue of humility.

“Many questions forced me to re-examine my explanations for how geoscience works, and some drove me to research that culminated in publications with new insights,” he said.

Niche, But Necessary

Peters, perhaps best known and celebrated for his work in organic geochemistry, said the field hasn’t always won him the kind of recognition represented by the Sidney Powers medal.

“A significant part of my career involved research and teaching in organic geochemistry,” he related. “Soon after I began my career in industry, I learned that geochemistry was at best a niche science. I recall walking a hallway at our field laboratory when a senior vice president from corporate headquarters passed me in the other direction. He called me back with a question: ‘Say, aren’t you Ken Peters the geochemist?’ After my response, he followed with: ‘Isn’t it true that geochemistry is a mature science?’”

Peters said that when the term “mature” is used to refer to any discipline, the implication is that there is nothing more that needs to be done.

“I have always regretted my feeble denial of that on-the-spot question. After more than 40 years in the profession, I have learned that we know far less about geochemistry and basin and petroleum system modeling than we should,” he said.

It is regrettable, he explained, because those disciplines are key to reducing risk in exploration and development for both conventional and unconventional resources, which makes them opportunities for fruitful research that will give a competitive edge.

The principal author of “The Biomarker Guide,” co-authored by Clifford Walters and Mike Moldowan, Peters is proud that the book has become an industry standard in understanding biomarker technology’s role both in petroleum exploration and Earth history and processes. Originally planned as just an internal memorandum for his work at Chevron, it grew to something much greater. The second and much-expanded version of “The Biomarker Guide,” published in 2007, checked in at two volumes and 1,155 pages.

“It took more than seven years to write and most of the work occurred early in the morning, late at night, at lunch, on weekends, or during vacation,” he said.

Peters said it is gratifying to see its popularity still strong among geoscientists in academia, government, industry and service companies worldwide.

“In the past decade, organic geochemistry has been rejuvenated, partly because, when combined with BPSM, it has shown to be a powerful tool to target sweet spots in unconventional resources. And of course, these tools still provide a critical input for the exploration and development of conventional petroleum resources,” he said.

Peters, too, has been a powerful force through it all.

John Zumberge, with GeoMark Research in Houston, called him a “reviewer/referee” and Allegra Hosford Scheirer, a researcher geophysicist at Stanford University, commented, “If industry, academia, and government are considered as separate legs of a three-legged stool, then Ken’s career can truly be considered to be well balanced: His decades of leadership in all three sectors leave an indelible mark,” adding, “Ken’s foundational work in organic geochemistry set the stage for how many of us in the field understand and utilize geochemistry data.”

Peters, who won the 2016 Alfred E. Tribes Medal and is also an AAPG Distinguished Lecturer, said motivating others is part of what drove him over the past four decades, and giving back to the geosciences has always been “an important personal goal.”

“This can be accomplished by reviewing submitted papers for various journals, presenting research results, mentoring less experienced professionals and teaching,” he said.

He currently serves as associate editor for three geoscience journals.

“Some of my colleagues say reviewing papers detracts from their work. They miss the fact that reviewing is a two-way street. The reviewer helps authors prepare a better manuscript, but the reviewer also gets an early look at research that makes him/her a better scientist. A similar argument applies to presenting or publishing research. Some managements classify all internal research as proprietary. They ignore the fact that the best candidates for employment are not simply interested in a big paycheck,” said Peters.

He believes many of these candidates want to work for organizations that demonstrate prowess in geoscience through publications.

The Vital Role of Teachers

For Peters, there was and is something unique about the classroom.

“Teaching may not be the oldest profession, but it is certainly the noblest,” he said.

Peters’ dad was a high school chemistry teacher and his mother taught English.

“I am the result of someone who loves science and the opportunity to write about it,” he added.

He has a special affinity for the struggle of educators.

“Teachers build the future through their students, yet we do not pay our teachers commensurate with their contributions. Geoscience professionals can help by volunteering to teach other colleagues, college students, and even kids in grade school,” said Peters.

He remembers that his love of science wouldn’t have been possible without such teachers.

“When I entered college, I already liked biology, chemistry and physics, but knew very little about geology because it was not offered at my high school. I was fortunate to meet the right teachers who steered me toward geoscience,” Peters related.

Sometimes he steered the car himself, which wasn’t always well received.

“When I was a graduate student, I upset my advisory committee by taking one course outside of the sciences,” he said.

It was a course called “Public Opinion,” which taught him the importance of education in formulating opinions.

“Those kids in grade school who want to know about geoscience will one day grow up to be voters or even political leaders. Geoscientists need to be proud of their profession and communicate that pride and the seminal importance of their work to the public,” he said.

Acknowledgements

Ever since he was announced as this year’s winner of the Sidney Powers award, he has been thinking of all those who helped him get to this point.

“My career has been blessed by more than my share of great colleagues, mentors, role models, and students,” said Peters.

He wants to thank, mostly, his wife, Vanessa, of more than 40 years for enduring “with grace and style” his “ambition, sometimes crazy work hours, and frequent business travel.” So, too, he thanks those in academia, government, industry and the service sector who, he said, conduct their business differently, but all have outstanding people who want to practice good science.

“These people are easy to identify. They openly share ideas and are eager to find solutions to critical geoscience problems using the scientific method and the concept of multiple working hypotheses. I could not have achieved this milestone without the support of many colleagues,” he said, specifically mentioning the AAPG Executive Committee for its selection, as well as his colleagues and the management of Schlumberger, which he calls an “incredibly diverse company where outstanding science is the overriding principle,” as well as his co-principals and students in the Basin and Petroleum System Modeling (BPSM) Industrial Affiliates Program at Stanford University.

“Their example helped me to be a better geoscientist,” he said.

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