University of Houston Wins Imperial Barrel Award First Place Honors

For the second time, the University of Houston has won the coveted Imperial Barrel Award, an annual AAPG-sponsored prospective basin evaluation competition for geoscience graduate students from universities around the world.

Considering that only one other school has won the IBA twice in the competition’s 14-year history – the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in 2016 and 2018 – one would be right to think the UH is becoming, if it isn’t already, quite the powerhouse.

It wasn’t always thus.

In fact, less than a decade ago, the school was still searching for its IBA sweet spot, if you will.

“UH wasn’t always near the top,” said Paul Mann, one of the school’s faculty advisers for the competition. “In fact, our crawl up the hill started in 2012 for John Castagna (another faculty adviser) and myself.”

Mann, professor of geology, tectonics, petroleum geology, and Robert E. Sheriff endowed chair at the university, said that what changed the school’s IBA crawl to a sprint was deceptively simple: The school’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences made the IBA portion of the curriculum a three-credit course. Mann also offered a three-credit basin analysis course himself, which aided in the effort. Prior to 2012, IBA was relegated to a non-credit club activity.

“You can imagine how challenging it is for a group of five student volunteers to put in the immense amounts of work into a project,” said Mann.

That work, he said, includes many hours in a “dreary computer lab over their week-long spring break,” which is tough enough under any circumstance, but especially when a student is neither being recognized nor given academic credit for his or her work.

Sharpening Communication Skills

The IBA, which aims to promote petroleum geoscience training while allowing students to meet and interact with industry professionals, tests both their technical skills and their ability to explain and defend the work. Schools first compete at regional and sectional competitions before heading to finals – this year held in San Antonio.

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For the second time, the University of Houston has won the coveted Imperial Barrel Award, an annual AAPG-sponsored prospective basin evaluation competition for geoscience graduate students from universities around the world.

Considering that only one other school has won the IBA twice in the competition’s 14-year history – the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in 2016 and 2018 – one would be right to think the UH is becoming, if it isn’t already, quite the powerhouse.

It wasn’t always thus.

In fact, less than a decade ago, the school was still searching for its IBA sweet spot, if you will.

“UH wasn’t always near the top,” said Paul Mann, one of the school’s faculty advisers for the competition. “In fact, our crawl up the hill started in 2012 for John Castagna (another faculty adviser) and myself.”

Mann, professor of geology, tectonics, petroleum geology, and Robert E. Sheriff endowed chair at the university, said that what changed the school’s IBA crawl to a sprint was deceptively simple: The school’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences made the IBA portion of the curriculum a three-credit course. Mann also offered a three-credit basin analysis course himself, which aided in the effort. Prior to 2012, IBA was relegated to a non-credit club activity.

“You can imagine how challenging it is for a group of five student volunteers to put in the immense amounts of work into a project,” said Mann.

That work, he said, includes many hours in a “dreary computer lab over their week-long spring break,” which is tough enough under any circumstance, but especially when a student is neither being recognized nor given academic credit for his or her work.

Sharpening Communication Skills

The IBA, which aims to promote petroleum geoscience training while allowing students to meet and interact with industry professionals, tests both their technical skills and their ability to explain and defend the work. Schools first compete at regional and sectional competitions before heading to finals – this year held in San Antonio.

“Our early UH teams,” said Mann, “were always strong technically, but not so strong in the oral presentation.”

He said his students improved on this part of the competition each year, up to and including the school’s victories in 2017 and 2019. In 2016, it paid off, and UH, which had a series of third place finishes, finally broke through, making it to the finals.

“We had the students write out lists of questions – with concise answers – that they might expect a judge to ask them,” said Mann.

This list was almost 100 questions.

“We would then pepper them with the questions until the answers were concise and confident,” he added.

Mann also made sure students had the slides immediately available to support their answers.

This was an important component, because IBA judges are experts are exposing any “holes” in these presentations, Mann explained.

“A well-rehearsed 25-minute presentation might go up in flames if the presenters reveal some underlying weaknesses in the questions and answers,” he said.

Mann described the students on the winning teams in 2017 and 2019 as “Depth of knowledge machines” who enjoyed a relaxed and articulate dialogue with the judges.

It’s an understatement to say those in the competition have to work collaboratively – of course they do – but at UH, Mann said teams also immerse themselves in work outside their prescribed fields.

“A great team also has members that know each other’s area. We assign specialists that include the mappers/structure/tectonics person, the geochem person, the geophysicist, and the sedimentologist.”

And no matter how much a team prepares, something always seems to come up. At the 2017 finals, one of the five team members had to attend his brother’s wedding on the same day as the finals. As the member was also officiating, there was no question over whether family loyalty would win out over the IBA competition.

The team still won the competition – even with only four members.

Mini-IBAs

The initial challenge of IBA, Mann underscored, is how quickly schools must put together these datasets.

With IBA, the data can arrive in early February and the first presentation, at the regional meeting, can be in late March – a mere eight weeks from initial study to a 25-minute presentation on a menu of topics laid out on the IBA website. And if a school then wins the regionals, the presentation is frozen, meaning no changes to the slides are allowed. To this end, in Mann’s own course, he includes a mini-IBA, of sorts, divides the class into teams, and gives them a dataset to summarize and present.

During the eight-week period, Mann and his team try to cover all the basics, including basin types, tectonic setting, structural interpretation of seismic, interpreting well and seismic data on work stations, as well as software like MOVE, Structure Solver, ArcGIS, and Petromod. Other courses at the school’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences also feed into the overall preparation of the IBA students with classes in petrophysics, well logging, sequence stratigraphy, advanced structure.

Mann believes part of the school’s success, in addition to how data-heavy its presentations are, is how quickly its students have learned to map the seismic grid.

“If the mapping becomes delayed for any reason, then there is a chain reaction with the prospects delayed and the fine-tuning delayed.”

Houston Advantage

UH, like all schools involved with IBA, could not pursue IBA without partnership and support, both from within the university of and corporate sponsors.

In Houston’s case, it helps that the sponsors are literally down the block.

“Being in Houston,” said Mann, “we have a big advantage over teams in places like Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, or even northeast Texas, in that our advisers are downtown or on the Energy Corridor and can participate on a regular basis.”

This year, for UH, those industry advisers were Gary Guthrie, who retired from Marathon Oil, and Reynaldo Cardona of Chevron. Such advisers rotate over the years, but are generally either active oil company employees or Houston-based retirees from companies with many decades of industry experience. Additionally, Mann wants to give a special shout-out to UH adjunct professor and IBA co-faculty adviser Kurt Rudolph, now retired from Exxon, for playing a major role by helping those teams build 1-D models that were calibrated to well data and maturity data.

For his part, Rudolph said that while showing students some examples from other basins in preparation for the competition, he wants to make sure they get the credit.

“They were self-starters. The students built the basin models themselves. They showed me the problem, the data/interpretations they had, and we talked about what they needed to do, the principles, and the workflow,” he said.

This year’s UH team members included doctoral student and team captain Aydin Shahtakhtinskiy, graduate student Jacob Miller, graduate student Patrick Chandler, doctoral student Spencer Fuston and graduate student Andrew Stearns.

Since the IBA competition began, more than 5,000 students from more than 500 universities in 76 countries have participated, including those in the poster competition, which Mann believes should get more attention, for it involves the same kind of hard work and dedication.

Other Finalists

In 2019, while UH took home bragging rights, including the $20,000 first prize, LaSalle University of Paris, France, finished second and won the Selley Cup, and the University of Oklahoma finished third and took home the Stoneley Medal. Also competing in the finals were: Universidad Industrial de Santander of Colombia from the Latin America and Caribbean Region; Sultan Qaboos University of Oman, from the Middle East Region; Ain Shams University of Cairo, Egypt from the Africa Region; San Diego State University from the combined Canada Region and Pacific Section; Colorado School of Mines from the Rocky Mountain Section; Texas Tech University from the Southwest Section and University of Georgia from the Eastern Section.

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