Researcher Follows His Interests

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)
For some researchers, work is a great adventure: Martin Jackson on northern Ellesmere Island in Arctic Canada, at latitude 80N.
For some researchers, work is a great adventure: Martin Jackson on northern Ellesmere Island in Arctic Canada, at latitude 80N.

By his own admission, Martin Jackson, this year’s winner of AAPG’s Robert R. Berg Award for Outstanding Research, would have been a lousy doctor.

It almost happened.

“My early inclination,” Jackson says, “was to medicine.”

So what happened? Did his focus change to salt tectonics after enrolling in some geology course on a lark? Or was it a family field trip that revealed the wonders and mysteries of the earth?


“I wasn’t clever enough,” he said of his goal of medicine, “so I settled for biology instead, aiming for marine biology, partly because a life by or on the sea was attractive after growing up in a landlocked country.”

Indeed, Jackson, who ranks among the geosciences award-winning legends at AAPG, was born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

But it wasn’t until he was completely done with medicine aspirations (or vice versa) did he take the obligatory geology course that changed his focus.

“At university,” Jackson says, “I added geology as a filler course – then discovered I had an aptitude for it.”

After graduation, he took a job as a mineral prospector, which helped him financially, but not philosophically – the occupation offered little mental stimulus.

Nor did he relish living in mining communities or being away from his young family, so he shifted gears and started an academic career.

And as much as medicine didn’t fit, research did.

In fact, it all did – even the early years prospecting and living rough.

“As a young field geologist sampling countless rocks and soils for lab analysis, I could never have envisaged the course of my future career,” he said.

“The combination of freedom and stimulation in research has been unbeatable,” he continued, “including exploration (physical adventure and the mental roving), piecing a story together, the satisfaction of using a drawing to think, the craft of writing and finally the encouragement to tell a geological story to others.”

It is those last two that Jackson, now senior research scientist at the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas at Austin, wants to emphasize.

“The hallmarks of an academic career are teaching or publishing, and fortunately I’ve never regarded writing as a dreary slog,” he said. “Some papers are difficult to write, and some almost write themselves, but they’ve all been immensely satisfying to complete.

“Unless academic research is published, it’s essentially useless and little more than self-gratification,” he said. “Only after publication can it be evaluated and tested and put to use if it’s any good.”

Born to Be Wild(er)

And his work has been good. Actually, not just good. They’ve been award-winning.

Jackson, who received the Berg Research award at the recent AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition in New Orleans, also has on his AAPG resumé:

  • The J.C. “Cam” Sproule Memorial Award, in 1985.
  • The George C. Matson Award, in 1990.
  • The Robert H. Dott Sr. Memorial Award, in 1998.
  • The Jules Braunstein Award, in 2009.

According to AAPG records, no one has won more AAPG technical awards, nor has any one won in as many technical catergories.

"AAPG has been shockingly generous in its recognition,” he said, “especially as I’m by no means a petroleum geologist.

His first award from AAPG – the Sproule Award, as co-author for Department of Energy-funded research in East Texas with Steve Seni – has a special meaning all its own for Jackson.

“To receive a prestigious award from an enormous international society like AAPG was entirely unexpected and made me realize there’s hidden potential in oneself,” Jackson said. “Winning an award boosts a young career in unpredictable ways."

The AGL research group (from left to right): Nancy Cottington, Angela McDonnell, Tim Dooley, Gang Luo, Mike Hudec, Martin Jackson, Ian Norton, Maria Nikolinakou and Mike Braunscheidel.
The AGL research group (from left to right): Nancy Cottington, Angela McDonnell, Tim Dooley, Gang Luo, Mike Hudec, Martin Jackson, Ian Norton, Maria Nikolinakou and Mike Braunscheidel.

And he has an admission to make about that Sproule.

"I squeaked in under the upper age limit of 35,” he said, “and was still feeling my way around techniques of subsurface geology.”

He quickly points out, though, that his drive and pursuit of scientific excellence isn’t fueled by the potential for awards, but the potential for adventure.

"I’ve always been attracted to unconventional or sparsely populated branches of geology,” he said. “My honors thesis at the University College of Rhodesia was on lunar geology, which began when NASA mixed up their shipments and mistakenly sent us a large box of Lunar Orbiter images."

For his Ph.D., he was "burning keen" to work in the Forbidden Area of the Namib Desert.


"Because no one else was.

"I concentrated on metamorphism and structural geology because they were the most difficult and opaque subjects I’d come across,” he added. “Later, while teaching at the University of Natal, I tried to use modern structural geology on Pleistocene cliff exposures while my structural colleagues concentrated on more-manly rocks like gneisses."

Bringing Home the Groceries

Going beyond AAPG, Jackson is perhaps best known for establishing the Bureau of Applied Geodynamics Laboratory at the UT, where he’s been since 1980.

The lab, he says, was inspired by two events.

The first came from his work with Chris Talbot at the Hans Ramberg Laboratory, where he learned how to model and how to critically evaluate the results.

“I realized that modeling was a perfect complement to the other main tools of the trade – field geology, subsurface geology, and theory – so I was keen to broaden my career with modeling, though how to do that was unclear.”

The second impetus, he said, was financial.

“The U.S. Department of Energy funded my colleagues and me to study the tectonic stability of salt domes to see if they were suitable for storing high-level nuclear waste,” he recalled. “Congress had abruptly stopped this funding in favor of Yucca Mountain as a national waste repository. Things looked bleak for further research on salt domes; it was 1988.

“So … our director, Bill Fisher, said, ‘Jackson, it’s time you brought in the groceries,’ as the Bureau of Economic Geology scrambled for new sources of external funding.”

Jackson decided to fund the venture with a large industrial consortium.

“This was the first time I’d interacted with the oil industry, but with help from Marcus Milling (AAPG Honorary member, now deceased), an associate director at AGL, we persuaded 13 companies to support the venture in our first year, a gesture of faith they made possibly because of the novelty.”

At the time, there were no other tectonic modeling laboratories housed at U.S. universities.

Since that initial shopping spree, AGL has attracted $13.7 million and now has over 30 member companies.

“Our debt to the financial support of the oil industry is deep.”

Global Interests

So, too, is Jackson’s fascination with new frontiers.

For instance, after arriving in Texas, he switched to softer, deeper and younger rocks than the Precambrian terranes he’d worked in for the previous 10 years.

“I immediately became interested in salt domes,” he said, “although this was then one of the most moribund topics in structural geology.”

After learning the ropes in the East Texas Salt Basin, he then “wandered,” first to the Gulf of Mexico and then to all over the world, with a special interest in the Paradox Basin, Iran, the Red Sea, Arctic Canada and the South Atlantic margins.

“I’ve also been attracted to some of the more bizarre manifestations of diapirism,” he said, “such as that on Triton (a satellite of Neptune) and Mars, and the puzzling relics of salt tectonics in complex Precambrian orogens.”

For Jackson, his career has been part art, part technical, part business. He talks of his enjoyment for salt tectonics and how it “provides complexity of structure, the mystery of what makes them move, the wonder that mountains of salt lie beneath the ground, a vast array of beautiful organic shapes and a dominant importance in many sedimentary basins that inspires companies to spend good money trying to understand them for exploration and seismic processing.

“I’ve always enjoyed history,” Jackson said, “and geology is the history of the earth. But history is more than a series of events.

“The real interest for me is cause and effect – how and why things happened.”

And so his work progresses, his awards continue and his resumé grows: Martin Jackson – research scientist, lecturer, wanderer, author … and grocery shopper.

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