Emma Giddens was a California girl who fell in love with carbonate rocks, excelled in nearly everything she tried, led her IBA team to a Selley Cup victory and even as a graduate student was known internationally for her “pioneering” research.
In fact, professors at three schools marveled at her passion for geology, her intelligence, her kindness and mentorship of fellow students. And which of those was most dominant in her life? That competition is too close to call, but her gift for and love of geosciences was on a historic arc.
“Emma was a woman pioneer in geology,” said Dr. John Pigott, her professor, adviser and mentor at the University of Oklahoma’s elite ConocoPhillips School of Geology and Geophysics. “When she presented some of her initial work on the petrophysics of drift deposits at the annual AAPG convention in San Antonio (2019) it attracted the attention of many, and one in particular: Saudi Aramco.
“Indeed, they invited her to visit their research laboratory to use their equipment,” he said, the first woman to receive that honor.
And as Dr. Gregor Eberli, her doctoral professor at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science observed, “Striving for her Ph.D. and searching for answers science had yet to find were driving forces behind everything she did.”
But perhaps “the pinnacle of her many accomplishments,” Pigott commented, was being named the recipient of the 2020 AAPG Foundation’s Gustavus E. Archie Memorial Grant, awarded earlier this year for her research work titled “Petrophysical Properties of Carbonate Drift Deposits.”
Tragically, Emma Giddens, who was in the fourth year of a five-year doctoral program focused on carbonates, died shortly before receiving word that her research was being honored with an AAPG Foundation Grant-in-Aid.
“In no small way, her awarding of the Archie Grant substantiates Emma’s elite geological intellectual abilities,” Pigott added, calling her “a remarkable combination of elegance, toughness, grace and grit – qualities that would eventually … propel her to elite scientific excellence and accomplishment.”
Special Grants, Special People
The AAPG Foundation Grants-in-Aid program provides financial assistance to graduate students whose thesis research has application to the search for and development of petroleum and energy-mineral resources, and/or related environmental geology issues.
This past year the Foundation awarded graduate grants to 110 students in 15 countries – a total of $299,000 awarded to research projects around the world thanks to the generous contributions of AAPG Foundation supporters.
“Geoscience education and ensuring the future of our profession is a huge part of what we do, in a variety of ways,” said AAPG Foundation Trustees Chair Jim Gibbs. “It’s part of our mission. And each year the Grants-in-Aid program provides an exciting setting for us to recognize and invest in the important research that so many truly talented and creative young minds are pursuing.”
Grants are based, in part, on financial needs of the applicant, but also on merit.
Merit. Emma Giddens’ qualifications, accomplishments and potential were unquestionably excellent.
“As a geoscientist, (she had) an intrepid interest in understanding order in what might appear as a disordered world, in understanding how things worked, and she was absolutely fascinated by geological problems that stumped others,” Pigott said – especially when it came to carbonates.
In fact, it was Pigott (“Dr. P” to his students, and especially to Emma) who introduced her to carbonate rocks and the Florida Keys, inspiring her academic direction and sharpening her focus on what would eventually become her specific expertise.
But her first formal exposure to the geosciences was earlier, as an undergraduate at Southern Methodist University, where she had gone to major in math but eventually added geology to become a double-degree graduate – thanks largely to taking a geology field trip with some classmates to Jamaica to study seismology, specifically the fault line that had triggered the deadly 2010 Haiti earthquake.
“They (SMU’s geology department professors) had asked her to come along to take advantage of her math skills – the only undergraduate invited on the trip,” recalled her father, Brent Giddens, “but she came back all energized to have experienced for the first time the real-world application of all of her studies, cementing her passion for geology.”
That experience led to OU, where her master’s thesis was “Pleistocene Coral Reef Destruction in the Florida Keys: Paleotempestite Evidence from a High Resolution LiDar XRF Analysis of Windley Key Quarry, Florida.”
“The moment I first met her when she drove up to Norman (Okla.) to express to me that she was much more than what a double bachelor’s in math and geology at SMU on paper was, I saw a special talent for geosciences,” Pigott said. “Her enthusiasm, her affective smile and, yes, her questions about what adventures carbonates held for her and what eventual goals a master’s stepping-stone could lead to …
“Emma was a flower waiting to blossom.”
Her father added that Pigott’s own passion for his work energized Emma to become not only a superb student but also one of his “pioneers in integrating LiDar to extract lithologic information with portable XRF” to apply mineralogy and photographic analysis to determine spatial percentages.
“Dr. P said Emma was such a wizard at integrating these tools that her fellow graduate students often came to her for guidance and calibration,” her father said.
“She was an inquisitive child, thanks to her mother and grandmother, and was always very organized, very determined and even competitive in her drive to be the best she could be,” Giddens added. “She was on top of her game – always.”
She Tied Everything Together
Emma loved music – Tom Petty was a particular favorite, a connection that started when she was three years old, gave voice to her spirit of determination and stayed with her through her entire career.
“I won’t back down … ”
And all who knew her saw immediately that was much more than a One Trick Pony. She loved and was challenged by the geosciences, but she also daily loved caring for others – humans and animals – she was a whiz with style, food and drink, and she was especially excellent at sports (four-year varsity starter on her high school lacrosse team, simultaneously a varsity cheerleader, skilled in basketball, going for a run every day, rain or shine, and “no other female geoscientist could throw a football in such a tight 20-plus-yard spiral,” her father speculated).
She had a fire to be not just better, but the best she could be, whatever role she was playing.
“She wasn’t just smart,” recalled her good friend and study partner Giancarlo Carleo, “she was curious, which is a far rare quality.”
“She loved to compete intellectually with her peers,” Pigott noted. “She was competitive, but in a compassionate way, for playing the game was as important as winning.”
That was obvious during her year on the OU Imperial Barrel Award team, leading her team to victory in the semifinals and then at the international competition, winning the Selley Cup.
“In this intense six-week team effort she absolutely found her intellectually perfect fit in solving problems under pressure,” Pigott said. “She was the basin analyst that tied everything together.
“Her stamina, her teamwork, her desire to win led them to win.”
Her journey toward excellence then led Emma to the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, under the guidance of Dr. Gregor Eberli, himself an honored recipient of the AAPG Grover Murray Outstanding Educator Award, where she studied downhole logs and core data in the Maldives, Australia and the Straits of Florida.
Again, she was leading the way for not only her peers, but for the profession, comprehensively characterizing the rock properties of carbonate drift deposits, according to Eberli. It was research that earned her invitations to present at several conferences and conventions, including her invitation to continue her research at Aramco’s research lab in Saudi Arabia – the first woman so honored – and her legacy as a woman geoscience pioneer.
It was a life of accomplishment, a life that pursued excellence, a life that held potential for so much more.
But as the popular song from the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical “Rent” asks, “How do you measure a year in a life?”
How about love …
Because even with the books and books of accolades and accomplishments, “love” is ultimately what people will tell you about Emma Giddens. From friends, peers, professors, professionals, family, the people who knew her even briefly. Her road to excellence was fueled with compassion and care for others.
She was that special, and thanks to her work and recognition by the Foundation, she’ll always be part of the AAPG story.
Editor’s note: Emma’s family has established a memorial fund in her honor at the University of Oklahoma’s Mewbourne College of Earth and Energy, which will award an annual grant to the student “who best exemplifies Emma’s passion for geology, brilliant scientific mind, kind empathetic heart and relentless drive for perfection.” More information at https://giving.oufoundation.org/OnlineGivingWeb/Giving/OnlineGiving/GiddensMem