The story begins in a restaurant – Tom’s Restaurant, on New York City’s upper west side, whose signage is instantly recognizable as the exterior to the fictional Monk’s Café where Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer would often converge on the sitcom “Seinfeld.” Close to Columbia University, its food, if not spectacular, is better than average.
But that’s not really the point. Its location is.
Let Robert R. Berg Outstanding Research Award Winner, Kurt J. Marfurt, known for his work in seismic processing and interpretation, pick up the story:
“I was fortunate to have access to one of the NASA supercomputers of the day, high atop Tom’s Restaurant,” he said.
Marfurt, who was at Columbia at the time, said it was the perfect location – almost unbelievably perfect.
“There was no sign, just an extra door next to the restaurant that could ring you in,” he said.
Back then, he wasn’t even doing the research work for which he ultimately became known and honored.
“I didn’t start my career in interpretation, or even in seismic processing, but in seismic modeling and imaging, developing early algorithms in something we call reverse time depth migration,” said Marfurt.
Leaving and Returning to Academia
He left Columbia, and in fact, academia in 1981, saying he “bravely crossed the Hudson River” and headed for Tulsa, Okla., where he worked at Amoco’s research lab, continuing his research in modeling for the next 18 years. It was a place and a company that was in constant flux, reorganizing every two years or so.
“The first reorg found me as the ‘supervisor’ of a signal analysis/processing group, where all the team members were not only older and more experienced, but at a higher level than me. So, I learned seismic processing and algorithm development from those who in principal I was supposed to lead,” Marfurt recounted.
In 1999, though, Amoco merged with BP, and it was time, he thought, to move on – and that took him back to academia.
“When I left Columbia University, I thought I needed five years of real experience. I had 18 years, so now was the time to go back to academia, and in my case to the University of Houston.”
At UH, where he spent eight years, he was professor of geophysics and director of the Allied Geophysics Lab. As a professor at one of the largest geoscience departments in North America, he had an embarrassment of riches at his disposal.
“It was not uncommon for me to mentor as many as 25 graduate students at a time, most seeking a degree in geophysics, but others seeking degrees in geology or computer science,” he said.
Some students were working in the Houston oil and gas industry, some were interpreters who wanted to become quantitative interpreters, and some were seismic processors who wanted to become interpreters, Marfurt explained.
“Given this mix of experience and career goals, the natural way for me to manage such a large number of students was to have some of them pursue topics in image processing resulting in what we call seismic attributes and others to calibrate what those pretty pictures meant using well control, production data, outcrop analogues, and principles of geology,” he said.
Circumstances, however, changed again for Marfurt as the industry’s landscape did.
“With the shale resource play revolution, a lifetime Oklahoma fishing license in my pocket, and former Amoco colleagues Carl Sondergeld and Chandra Rai conducting cutting edge rock physics analysis of shales at the University of Oklahoma, I emulated Will Rogers and moved north, thereby increasing the IQ of both states,” he said.
He currently serves as the Frank and Henrietta Schultz professor of geophysics within the ConocoPhillips School of Geology and Geophysics at OU.
Looking back, Marfurt, who has spent 24 years in academia in those three universities – Columbia, Houston, and Oklahoma – said he’s learned from those he was tasked to teach.
“I’ve learned most from my students – sometimes from their pitfalls showing weaknesses in our technology and in inaccurate assumptions, more often by their creativity, and most often from their misunderstanding of what cannot be done,” he said.
In describing his work, specializing in applying coherence, spectral decomposition, structure-oriented filtering and volumetric curvature to mapping fractures and karst as well as attribute-assisted processing, he references a common household camera.
“To a lay person, I describe our algorithm work as image processing. I also describe much of our work as geo-psychological analysis,” said Marfurt.
In fact, many of the algorithms he uses are the same edge detectors, smoothers, red-eye suppression, and other filters that you might find in your digital camera software, except, as he explained, “We manipulate billions of 3-D-connected voxels instead of 4 million 2-D-connected pixels.”
He is both pleased and humbled by the Berg Award and wants to send out special thanks to his wife, Stephanie, and his two daughters Jessica and Rebecca, for their patience and encouragement. There is also the influence of Satinder Chopra, a 2019 AAPG Distinguished Service Award recipient and editor of the EXPLORER’s Geophysical Corner, even though the two have never worked for the same company, nor even lived in the same country.
“Together we’ve written several dozen papers and abstracts, a book in 2007, a long list of Geophysical Corner articles, and a new book to be written in the next two years. I’m ever grateful to have him as a friend and colleague, thank him for writing my biography, and look forward to our future collaboration,” said Marfurt.
He also knows, in addition to thanking those who helped get him to this point in his career, he owes something to the next generation of geoscientists.
“While conducting the SEG DISC (Society of Exploration Geophysicists’ Distinguished Instructor Short Course) tour in 2018, young geoscientists often asked me for guidance on how to further develop their careers. I responded that they should always be flexible and be open to change,” he said.
His advice is not just philosophical, it’s practical, too.
“To me, programming is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle or building a ship in a bottle. My advice to young people: If you need to do a repetitive numerical task more than three or four times a month, learn how to program it up,” he explained.
He also has some advice for the established geoscientists.
“As an associate editor for either Geophysics or Interpretation since 1984, and as a recent editor-in-chief of Interpretation, I encourage anyone who reads this far to volunteer to be a reviewer or associate editor. While reviewers learn from papers that are well written, they also learn from papers that are poorly written – sometimes the importance of supporting any arguments or claims with data, other times on how to present a technical idea clearly and concisely,” he said.
Marfurt is also immensely proud of his work and leadership of Attribute Assisted Seismic Processing and Interpretation, which he runs with colleagues from various institutions and companies around the globe. AASPI is a consortium whose focus consists of algorithm development (both attributes and machine learning algorithms); seismic data conditioning, calibration of the results using geologic models, well logs, and outcrop analogues; and calibration using engineering data including microseismic events and production.
The profession, overall, he said, needs experts and specialists but also needs those who can inspire.
“In my case, I started my geoscience education at Columbia University’s Krumb School of Mines under Professor John Tsung-Fen Kuo. Kuo not only stimulated a love of research and how to deal with setbacks, but also showed by example that a good teacher puts his students first. There is a Chinese saying that ‘A good teacher shines in reflected light,’” Marfurt said.
As Constanza might say to Jerry at Tom’s, “That’s gold.”