Teacher and Student, Together Again

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)
Ole Martinsen
Ole Martinsen

While it’s a big world geologically, the world of geology is often smaller, more insular.

In this world, connections made today may be connections made for life. And the manner of the connection may rise again and again in unexpected ways.

How else to explain the fact that this year’s AAPG award-winning researcher will be honored on the same stage with his professor, who happens to be a winner of AAPG’s top educator award?

A professor from Texas and a vice president of Norwegian oil company – connected by a history and a friendship that go back to 1990.

Ole J. Martinsen, vice president and head of exploration research for Statoil ASA, Bergen, Norway, will be honored in April at the AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition as this year’s winner of the Robert R. Berg Outstanding Research Award.

Ronald J. Steel, professor and David Centennial Chair at the University of Texas, Austin, as well as the Sixth-Century Chair of Sedimentary Geology at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, will be one of two people receiving the Grover E. Murray Distinguished Educator Award on the same stage.

They met in a classroom at the University of Bergen in Norway. At the time, one was coming back to academia; one was about to make his mark.

But for both, the meeting marked a significant first in their lives.

“I had been working in Norsk Hydro for nearly nine years (first in research, then in exploration),” Steel said, “and was about to leave and return to the University of Bergen as professor in reservoir geology. In planning my new academic career in 1990 and looking for graduate students and collaborators, I had heard about a young and enthusiastic, recently completed Ph.D. student, Ole Martinsen.”

Martinsen, in fact, turned out to be Steel’s first post-doctoral student.

“Ole quickly adjusted up from being a student to being an active leader in a fairly large student research group working both in Europe and the USA.”

Martinsen, too, not only recalls the moment but recognizes its significance, saying that Steel’s influence was “very instrumental” in his academic and professional career.

“I guess the Bergen story was more sort of Ron being the senior project founder and organizer who got me involved,” Martinsen said of those early days, “and I was a junior executor, more than the typical professor-post-doc student relationship.”


This characteristic may help explain the difference in career paths.

For his part, Steel, who has remained in education since the early 1990s, believes there is a special, almost inexplicable joy in academia.

“It has been a great pleasure for me to have been a teacher for so many years and in three countries,” Steel said. “I’m not sure that it was always the teaching itself, but it was often a great experience to air current research concepts and ideas with graduate student classes, such as Martinsen.”

Steel said this sharing of ideas – this kinship – is more common in the United States than it is in Europe.

Martinsen said he also believes the kinship is an important one, albeit one that, for him, manifested itself in business.

“There have been many scientific challenges and some professional ones,” he said, “but I feel the geological community is one of great positivism and where scientific passion totally overcomes professional struggles.”

Martinsen adds the academic world sometimes must handle itself with more firmness and “clear direction.”

One gets the sense that for Steel, the rewards of the relationships mean as much as the awards he gets for doing his job.

“Students are unfettered and have endless capacity, and so they provide great feedback in such situations,” he said. “Geology, in addition, lends itself to field teaching, and there is nothing like field teaching to get commitment and excellence from students! Doing this in icy Spitsbergen, at 79 degrees north, is very rewarding.”

And even though Martinsen has worked in industry for most of the past two decades, he still sees the parallels between he and his mentor, namely the desire to solve “natural science problems of importance to society in terms of exploring and exploiting energy resources.

“I work in industry because I am particularly concerned with not just the development of both but also the application of geological theories and hypotheses,” Martinsen said. “I am also very engaged by not just executing geology but also planning research and developing strong teams.”

Pride and Gratitude

There is, like most professor-student relationships, pride and gratitude for the work of each.

“I still remember stories about Ole being hauled out of mud where he had gotten his truck stuck in the Hanna Basin!” said Steel, who has had more than 95 graduate students – and who adds, “Ole’s American work also had a significant influence on myself.”

Martinsen, who readily admits to the influence of not only Steel but also Jim Steditmann and AAPG Distinguished Service Award Winner and former AAPG treasurer Randi Martinsen, says, “After all, geological science is about seeing the most, working with diverse problems and global experiences and applications.”

And his friendship with Steel is one that endures.

“It is a very interesting way of crossing paths yet again,” he said of the fact that both will be honored in Houston.

“We have met many times in the last 20 years since we cooperated at the University of Bergen,” he said of Steel. “I take our joint interests and success back to the education and teaching culture at the University of Bergen.”

It is something he wishes for others.

“I encourage all younger scientists to take international opportunities, seeing all the rocks they can see and apply the knowledge in exploration and exploitation of natural resources.”

Steel agrees.

“Yes,” he says of the coincidence of their two awards, “it would seem to be an unusual intersection! Although we never did have much joint research after Ole’s post-doc period, we cross paths and talk frequently at gatherings and conferences because of our common interest in sedimentology and Norsk Hydro (now Statoil).

There is something else, too:

“When Ole also gets tired of management, maybe we will work again together,” says the teacher.

“This would be quite a lot of fun,” says his old student.

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