Ahmed Ismail, a passionate geoscience educator who not only showed potential but also sensed a career calling as early as grade school, has been named this year’s recipient of the AAPG Foundation’s Inspirational Geoscience Educator Award.
Ismail, who has international experience in academia, the energy service sector (Schlumberger) and with the Illinois State Geological Survey, is an assistant professor at the Boone Pickens School of Geology at Oklahoma State University, where he has taught since 2016.
His teaching load (undergraduate and graduate levels) includes Advanced Studies in Geology, Seismic Interpretation, Introduction to Geophysical Exploration, a Geology Colloquium and Special Problems in Earth Science.
But his distinction is due not to what he teaches, but who he reaches – students, by the dozens, who excitedly talk about their lives being changed by his inspiring approach to the geosciences, and plenty of peers, too.
Color them all grateful – and unreserved in their praise. They are the ones who quietly nominated Ismail for the Foundation award, which explains Ismail’s surprise to learning of his selection.
“Actually, I didn’t believe it,” Ismail said in recalling the moment he received the notification call from Foundation IGEA Vice Chair Mike Party. “I said, are you sure?”
On the other hand, the support for his nomination as well as the Foundation honor itself seem consistent with the response he has received for most of his life. Throughout his career, his teaching consistently has been called “personal, enthusiastic, interactive and able to simplify difficult concepts.”
“I am humbled to be recognized by my students and colleagues who nominated me for the award,” Ismail said, “and honored to be selected by the AAPG Foundation.
“For me, the IGEA is an exceptional recognition,” he said.
The Foundation’s IGEA is presented annually to a college or university professor who has “demonstrated outstanding leadership in geoscience education.”
The award includes a $6,000 prize and recognition at the Foundation Chairman’s Reception during IMAGE 2022, which this year will be held in Houston Aug. 28-Sept. 2.
Party, a member of the Foundation’s Education Awards Committee, “enthusiastically” led this year’s IGEA competitive process.
AAPG Foundation Chair Jim McGhay, in announcing Ismail’s selection, congratulated him specifically for the relationships he has developed with his students and co-workers – connections that sparked impressive testimonies on Ismail’s behalf and were instrumental in the award process.
“All geoscience professionals were inspired and encouraged by someone special in our studies, which is why we are so happy to be able to reward and recognize outstanding professors,” McGhay said. “Ahmed’s relationships with his students and peers are what elevate him above others.
“It is with great pride that the Foundation can recognize and honor these teachers,” he continued. “We’re confident that Ahmed and the people who he has touched will continue to shine a bright light on the excitement and satisfaction of using the geosciences throughout their careers.”
It’s a Gift
Ismail was born and raised in Egypt. His capacity to inspire others would be years away, but the realization that he could connect with others by simply talking came at an early age.
Fifth grade, to be precise. He was singled out by a teacher who called him the “best in class” at expressing to others what he himself had just learned.
The responsibility and opportunities that come with that talent, however, began to emerge in middle school, when his teacher continually asked him to lead the class through “any subject you want … I like the way you talk!”
“And even during my military service – which is weird – (they) said, ‘Ahmed, give us a lecture about science.’ And I would keep talking to them, and they would say, ‘Oh, that’s good – we like it!’”
Connecting with others by his teaching and lecturing style wasn’t something he was brought up doing, he said. There’s no family legacy, no designed intent. It’s just who he is – and the person others have encouraged him to become.
The inspiration potential became more apparent with each new setting.
His teaching career started – shortly after graduating with his bachelor’s degree in geology – as a middle school science teacher. And that’s when he “started to realize my passion for teaching science there,” he said.
For Ismail, it was a time of affirmation; he remembers that, not only did the students enjoy his accessible and passionate teaching style, but even the school’s principal and other faculty would attend.
“It seemed I made the students happy,” he said, “and I made them like science.”
After receiving his master’s degree in applied geophysics from Egypt’s Mansoura University, Ismail traveled to America and received his doctorate in applied geophysics from the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, Mo.
His career path led to stints as a geophysicist with the Illinois State Geological Survey; as the multicomponent seismic processing group leader for Schlumberger in Denver; and then in 2018 to return to the Illinois survey as a research affiliate for the Prairie Research Institute (a connection he still maintains).
Since arriving at OSU in 2016 he developed an interdisciplinary research program with a focus on geophysics and emphasis on multicomponent seismic analysis, seismic characterization of fractures, and hydrological applications, geotechnical and geohazards applications.
“Teaching through research, lab experiments, fieldwork and informal class settings allowed me to combine my passion for geoscience with my desire to work with students,” he said.
“I believe we are extremely fortunate that our classes are leveraged with a fieldwork component and that our laboratory is planet Earth,” he said.
“One of my objectives is to correct the misconception about geology as the science that studies rocks,” he said. “Yes, we study rocks because our planet is made of rocks, but our planet contains all resources essential for life that geologists explore and discover.”
In his classes – especially for those who are simply looking for a science credit – “we teach the present conditions of our planet Earth, discover its history and predict its future.”
“His students’ evaluations show that he is someone students like, and who genuinely likes spending time with students,” said department head Camelia C. Knapp.
“He is able to develop a close working relationship with students at all levels of education,” she added, “both in and out of the classroom.”
Ismail has had 10 graduate students at OSU (three doctorates and seven masters) and has mentored 10 undergraduate students and one post-doctoral scholar in research.
“All of my MS students have successfully completed their graduate degrees,” he said, “and six are now working in major oil and environmental companies, and one is working at the U.S. Geological Survey.”
Oh, and about all those words of not only support of Ismail for his award, but also to affirm his potential to inspire? They would include:
- “He makes geophysics interactive and easy to understand, always willing to answer any questions and takes the time to ensure that his students are comfortable with what’s being taught.”
- “I really appreciated the passion (he) had when teaching.”
- “If I could just choose three words to describe Dr. Ismail they would be knowledgeable, passionate and caring.”
- “I really liked how the lectures were formatted as a story – it made sense, since it is the history of the Earth and its processes. It also made it a lot more interesting.”
- “You have shed a new light on geology for me and shown how important geology is – not only putting reason behind the way the world works, but how the world can affect us and how we affect it.”
- “Dr. Ismail has opened a whole new world to me … He has shown me how something as complex as geophysics can be taught in a way that makes it seem easy, and he has shown me how valuable and enjoyable this subject is.
- “In fact, the majority of students who take his introductory geophysics course want to continue to take more geophysics with Dr. Ismail and take his advanced Seismic Interpretation course – leading to a very large percentage of our geology majors completing a minor in geophysics!”
As the award says: Inspirational.