Halbouty Award winner

Robbie Gries: A Career of Many ‘Firsts’

Robbie Gries
Robbie Gries

How does a girl from the Texas Gulf Coast, a self-described traditionalist who had never even heard of geology, become the very first female geology graduate at Colorado State University and the first woman to serve as AAPG president?

And, for that matter, how does she become the first woman to receive AAPG’s Michel T. Halbouty Outstanding Leadership Award?

Brains, yes. Hard work, obviously. Fortunate choices, no doubt.

All of these were part of it – along with unfailing enthusiasm, a boatload of optimism and energy and, according to the woman herself, a lot of support from her friends.

Denver independent Robbie Gries will be presented the 2012 Halbouty Award at the AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition in Long Beach, Calif.

It will be an occasion made all the more memorable by the presence of so many of the cherished friends she has made during her 30-plus years in the industry and AAPG.

“I think what I have enjoyed most about AAPG is the people, the friends I’ve made along the way,” she said. “My term as president allowed me the opportunity to get to know leading geoscientists around the world.

“This is such a wonderful thing and wouldn’t have been possible any other way.”

A Love Affair Begins

Gries grew up in Ingleside, Texas, the daughter of a Gulf Coast shrimper. As a child she remembers collecting rocks any time the family traveled, and in middle school, given a choice between home economics and a basic science course, she jumped at the latter.

Still, it wasn’t until she was a sophomore at Del Mar Junior College in Corpus Christi, Texas, that she even heard of the science of geology.

“I thought it sounded interesting, so I enrolled in a basic geology course taught by Dr. Hugh Doney,” she recalled. “I knew I had found what I wanted to do.

“His lectures were mesmerizing,” she continued. “He took us on these fun field trips, which I found fascinating. We were introduced to physical geology, history of geology and paleontology – and I was hooked.”

She completed her courses at Del Mar, planning to go on to the University of Texas at Austin. She hit a snag, though when UT wouldn’t accept all of the junior college credits. Eager to delve deeper into geology, Gries went outside the Texas system to Colorado State University, which not only accepted her hours from Del Mar, but honored her scholarship.

“Even though I was paying out-of-state tuition, I figured out that I could live there with my aunt and with my scholarship and not having to take those basic courses again it would cost me less,” she said.

It was a serendipitous solution. She fell in love with Colorado’s mountains and trees and seasons – and most of all, its spectacular geology.

It was at CSU that she accomplished two important “firsts” – first female geology student to go to field camp and the school’s first female geology graduate. She thrived there in the relatively small geology department and established lifelong friendships.

On Second Thought…

Nationally, the feminist movement was gaining momentum, but it didn’t occur to Gries or her professors that she would seek a job in industry.

While working on her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, her professors “didn’t even tell me when there were recruiters on campus,” she said. “I think they thought it would be useless for a woman to even apply for an oil company position. I didn’t think about it because I had my heart set on teaching.”

She earned her master’s degree from the UT Austin, married, had a baby and learned something else about herself: She wasn’t cut out to be the traditional homemaker she’d always thought she wanted to be.

She did get the opportunity to teach night classes at Wichita State University for a short time.

“I enjoyed teaching very much,” she said, “but that was my first exposure to the political side of academia. I didn’t think that was for me. I thought I probably did not have the temperament for it.”

There was a divorce, and Gries took her daughter and went back to Colorado to work for Texaco.

It was an exciting time. Women were making great strides in the workplace and Gries was perfectly positioned to take the ball and run with it – and once again she experienced more “firsts”:

  • She was among the first women geologists at Texaco to be allowed well site access.
  • A few months later, while working for Reserve Oil, was one of the first two women to be accepted for membership in the Denver Petroleum Club.
  • She was welcomed into professional groups, including the Rocky Mountain Association of Geologists, and became involved in her first volunteer job, as program chairman.

“I absolutely loved it!” she said. “I got to meet so many highly respected geologists, and became friends with many of them. Several became mentors and played a big part of the success I’ve enjoyed in my career.”

From them she learned the how-tos of working as an independent consultant – and some years later, organizing her own company, Priority Oil & Gas.

At least two of these mentors – Jack Parker and Norm Foster – went on to serve as presidents of AAPG, as did Gries in 2001-02.

Outside the Box

Thinking outside the box is a hallmark of Gries’ career, both as a petroleum geologist and a volunteer. One example that may be her most gratifying experience as an explorationist was a successful well her company drilled for a client in the San Juan Sag basin in southern Colorado.

“For years the USGS and others insisted that the surface volcanics that covered this area went all the way down to basement,” she recalled. “But research of the old literature, field work and lab tests convinced me that there had to be an oil-producing basin concealed below the volcanics.

“It was tense waiting to see whether the project would hit Cretaceous rocks or not. When we did, verifying the existence of the Sag basin, it was one of the best days of my career.”

She likewise does not hesitate to think and act with innovation in regard to professional societies. The résumé of her service to AAPG alone contains more than 40 entries, covering a wide range of jobs from Membership Committee to House of Delegates, to Distinguished Lecturer, chair of the 1994 AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition, Executive Committee and many others.

Earlier AAPG honors also are numerous, including several Certificates of Service and Certificates of Merit, Honorary Membership, the Distinguished Service Award and the A.I. Levorsen Award.

She helped create AAPG’s PROWESS Committee (Professional Women in Earth Sciences), whose purpose is to help women geoscientists overcome obstacles to career advancement.

As a woman who understands the challenges motherhood brings to building a career, it’s a project she believes will serve women and industry equally well.

She pointed out that there is a great deal of talent, education and experience – extremely valuable commodities – that is wasted when women cut their professional careers short.

“We have needed to emphasize to companies how important it is for them to create a working environment that promotes retention of women; one that allows women to continue their careers while going through their child-rearing years,” she said.

The committee will sponsor a session, “Women in the Energy Industry: Developing Negotiation Skills,” at the annual meeting in Long Beach.

And it’s a safe bet Gries will be there, making new friends and greeting old ones, leading the next generation toward careers as successful and satisfying as her own.

That’s what leaders do.

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