‘Put da fun before da mental’

Powers Medalist a ‘Practical Researcher’

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)
L. Frank Brown Jr. (kneeling), a key developer of concepts in depositional systems, seismic stratigraphy and sequence stratigraphy, is this year’s AAPG Sidney Powers award winner.
L. Frank Brown Jr. (kneeling), a key developer of concepts in depositional systems, seismic stratigraphy and sequence stratigraphy, is this year’s AAPG Sidney Powers award winner.

Only one AAPG member went on record to question the choice of L. Frank Brown Jr. as recipient of the 2010 Sidney Powers Memorial Award, the Association’s most distinguished honor.

That was L. Frank Brown Jr.

“I’m sort of surprised that I would be singled out in petroleum geology,” he admitted.

There’s no doubt, Brown would be more comfortable with the title of Practical Geologist or even General Stratigrapher.

There’s also no doubt that his work helped change the way petroleum geology and exploration is done around the world.

Brown is an emeritus professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a senior research fellow at the Bureau of Economic Geology (BEG). He’s known as a key developer of concepts in depositional systems, seismic stratigraphy and sequence stratigraphy.

William L. Fisher, a past Sidney Powers medalist and former dean of the Jackson School of Geosciences at UT-Austin and a longtime collaborator with Brown as director of BEG, called him one of the world’s top stratigraphers.

Brown’s honors include the Monroe Cheney Science Award from AAPG’s Southwest Section, the Doris Malkin Curtis Medal from the Gulf Coast Section SEPM and in 2008 a Special Award from the Geological Society of South Africa.

He developed today’s fundamental approach to describing depositional packages and introduced advanced stratigraphic concepts around the world – in large part through AAPG lectures, short courses and publications.

And along the way he helped upend some dubious thinking in geology.

For example, he described BEG studies showing the prevailing geological theory about the mature Woodbine Field area in Texas was off the mark. As a result, waterflooding efforts in the field weren’t draining the reservoir efficiently.

“Those fellows over in East Texas were just bumfuzzled because their ideas turned out to be incorrect,” Brown said.

That work led to a string of discoveries by operators, including AAPG Honorary Member and Sidney Powers medal awardee Bob Gunn’s Gunn Oil Company in Wichita Falls, Texas, he said.

“They’ve made zillions of discoveries and they’re still making them,” Brown noted. “They’ve totally flummoxed people over there, who couldn’t figure out how they were finding these things.”

Bed Time in Brazil

Changes in geological thinking during Brown’s 55-year career have amounted to nothing less than a revolution, in his view.

“I sort of bridged the gap from the old timers before World War II – when stratigraphy was considered boring and involved a lot of memorization – through a revolution where almost all the majors established research labs,” Brown said.

“Everything that happened from that period through the 1950s up to today was very controversial at the time,” he added. “The old timers didn’t want to change their way of thinking. For the most part, people now have accepted what happened.”

Out of all his international geological consulting work, including visits to 25 countries, Brown is probably best known for his efforts in Brazil.

“Bill Fisher and I were working with Petrobras for about 10 years,” Brown recalled. “That got us into collaboration with Peter Vail and with Bob Mitchum and those guys over at Exxon.

“In that period, I’d work a basin and he’d work a basin. We insisted that they send two or three people up to Austin every year – not to go to school, but to rent space at the university and to work on real problems in these basins,” he said.

Fisher described one experience with Brown when the two were consulting with Petrobras. The company had arranged accommodations at a good hotel in Rio de Janeiro, in the Copacabana area.

They decided to travel to Brazil’s Bahia region for fieldwork and returned to Rio one night at about 1 a.m. The hotel could provide only one room, with a double bed – and not enough space for all their luggage.

Fisher, Brown and a suitcase shared the bed that night. The next day, Petrobras executives asked about their hotel stay. They said their quarters were marginal, at best.

When the pair returned that evening, “they had the entire suite on the top of that hotel reserved for us, with an open bar,” Fisher recalled. “Our colleagues would remark how well Petrobras was treating us.

“Frank said, ‘All you have to do is find them a little oil, and look what you get,’” he said.

Almost everyone knows the ultimate ending to this story. The work done by Brown and Fisher helped Petrobras find much more than “a little oil.”

The Practical Solution

Unlike some geologists, Brown went off to college with an established career path in mind.

“I had a grandfather who was a medical doctor, and everybody in the family said, ‘You’ve got to be a doctor,’” Brown recounted. “So, I spent four years in pre-medical at Baylor.”

As it turned out, that was all the medical training he really wanted. He looked around the sciences and asked how he could get a degree in geology.

“They said, ‘You’d have to spend one solid year studying nothing but geology.’ So I did that,” he said.

After earning his first degree cum laude at Baylor, he attended the University of Wisconsin and received his doctorate in geology in 1955.

As a graduate student, Brown realized that he didn’t want to be the kind of scientist who spends all his time in a laboratory. Petroleum geology seemed like a practical choice for a career.

“It was the fact that it was good science and there were a lot of practical aspects to it, which I liked,” he said. “I’d had just about enough of lab science.”

Moreover, Brown had grown up around the oilfields near Drumright, Okla. He’d worked summers in the industry in “construction, roustabout work and a little roughnecking.” His father was an employee in the production department of Gulf Oil, Brown said, “and I thought, ‘Well, I guess it’s a way to make a living.’”

With his geology degrees in hand, Brown launched off for a career in petroleum geology in the world’s most exciting and exotic places.

And landed in Amarillo.

Texas. The Panhandle. For two years.

“I never did a lot of well site work,” he recalled. “Never sat a well. When I worked for Standard of Texas in Amarillo, they weren’t drilling a lot of wells.”

“Operators out in West Texas wanted people to keep working the area and to come up with some new ideas,” he said. “Some of the older guys out there thought surely there must be different types of targets than they’d been drilling.”

At that point, he was offered a position as a researcher with the BEG in Austin, to continue the Bureau’s studies in the West Texas Basin.

A Global Classroom

Brown returned to Baylor to teach geology for six years, then came back to the BEG and began a decades-long, fruitful collaboration with Fisher and other scientists.

“Frank introduced the concept of system tracks – we called them depositional system tracks in those days. That has become the fundamental way of describing depositional packages,” Fisher said.

As a 50-year colleague, Fisher admires Brown’s “exceptionally keen perception. That’s why he was early on one of the leaders in seismic stratigraphy. He could see things in the data that nobody else could see.

“At the same time, he’s capable of listening to others,” Fisher added, “and we’ve had some good conversations on a number of issues.”

Brown also brought a willingness to keep learning to his research – and a healthy skepticism about what he’d been told. As an example, he cited the initial opposition to plate tectonics theory.

“When I was in school, I was told it was totally impossible to move a continent around the world,” he said.

After his university experience, Brown said he quickly realized that he – and the industry – had “huge gaps in knowledge.” He’s managed to fill in a number of those gaps with his research and his travels.

“I’ve learned a lot I didn’t know before by seeing basins all over the world,” he said.

The word Brown uses most often to describe his work is “practical,” and he considers himself more of an intuitive, big-picture researcher than an analyst.

“I’m a right-brainer, not a left-brainer like a lot of these scientists are,” he explained. “I’m more of an integrator and a geology historian.”

It’s been said that the key to gaining fundamental knowledge is to “put da fun before da mental.” Brown has followed that advice in his highly successful research and career.

“In Wisconsin, I had great fun as a grad student,” Brown said, “and I’ve had fun ever since.”

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