Building Our Association, One Step at a Time

For some, a walk in a lot of sand; for others, the thrill of a lifetime.
For some, a walk in a lot of sand; for others, the thrill of a lifetime.

Last month I had the privilege of traveling to the Middle East with AAPG President Lee Krystinik.

Our packed itinerary, coordinated by AAPG Middle East Region President Sa’id Al-Hajri and Abeer Al-Zubaidi, director of the AAPG office in Dubai, allowed us to meet with a host of executives and professionals in the region.

Saudi Aramco graciously invited us on a field trip to the Sheyba field, located in the Rub’ al Khali, the Empty Quarter, of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Here, in the largest sand sea on earth, we stood on 300-meter sand dunes overlooking a field producing 750,000 barrels of oil per day. It was an amazing experience.

We then visited our office in Dubai to discuss opportunities for AAPG to have an even greater impact in the Middle East, and we wrapped up our trip at the seventh International Petroleum Technology Conference (IPTC) in Doha, Qatar. IPTC is a joint venture of AAPG, EAGE, SEG and SPE.

Lee and Don Steeples, president of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists who also was touring the region, were invited to speak to the Dhahran Geoscience Society and Emirates Society of Geoscience. Both events were packed and we spent two very enjoyable evenings discussing our science and industry with fellow geoscientists.

We then had a second chance to go into the field in Abu Dhabi. And this trip turned out to have a personal connection for me.


David Curtiss (left) realizing a truth in Saudi Arabia’s Rub’ al Khali – we’re always following in the steps of others.
David Curtiss (left) realizing a truth in Saudi Arabia’s Rub’ al Khali – we’re always following in the steps of others.

ADCO, the Abu Dhabi Company for Onshore Oil Operations, permitted us to access one of its fields to visit a sabkha.

But this wasn’t any ordinary sabkha. As our hosts informed us, it was “Chris Kendall’s sabkha.”

Christopher G. St. C. Kendall, an AAPG member and professor emeritus of the University of South Carolina, did his doctorate work at this particular location, and much later he cheerfully and willingly agreed to serve on my master’s thesis committee.

It was a thrill to walk in his footsteps with colleagues who knew him well, and it caused me to reflect intensely on how we as scientists build upon the work and understanding of those who go before us.

Simply thumb through the BULLETIN, for example, and you’ll see references in each journal article drawing on earlier published research. The authors take and develop new insights and viewpoints based on that previous work and their own new observations and findings.

This is an important way that we achieve our mission to advance the petroleum geosciences.


The sun was warm overhead but a cool breeze kept things comfortable as we struck out across the sabkha, in the direction of the Arabian Gulf. Our footsteps crunched as we crossed a field of cone-shaped turritella shells, the remnants of sea snails, occasionally stopping to look at a particular specimen or to dig a small trench looking for anhydrite and evidence of cyanobacteria.

As we continued seaward the sand underfoot began to change, sparkling flecks of gypsum catching the sun as far as the eye could see. It was beautiful.

And our footing changed yet again as we continued over rubbery dried mats of cyanobacteria that lay atop the sand. We were getting closer to the sea.


Just as we advance our science by building upon the foundations laid by earlier generations, we continue to build our Association to best achieve its mission of advancing science and promoting professionalism. And just as our scientific understanding changes over time, so too must AAPG evolve to maintain its health and vibrancy in preparation for its second century.

Creating an organization that delivers our science to all who are interested in petroleum geoscience, and thereby demonstrating our relevance to society, is our challenge over the next several years. And this Association must be welcoming and attractive to new members, whose interests, desires and values may differ from those of past generations.

That does not mean throwing out everything that previous AAPG members have built over the last century. In fact, there is much to preserve for future generations.

But evolving AAPG does require an honest assessment of everything we do – even cherished organizational practices and beliefs – to determine if they continue to serve the needs of the Association today and its next generation of members.


The sabkha was getting wetter and wetter. I stopped to remove my shoes and socks and rolled up my pant legs above the ankle – I hadn’t really packed for this type of field experience – and continued toward the sea.

Cyanobacteria mats form irregular polygons, just barely submerged under water. Think of a series of interlinked sand-colored lily pads with dark speckles and a greenish-black rim outlining the edges.

While the surface of the mat was a bit slippery, gingerly placing one foot in front of the other enabled slow progress. The mats held my weight – that is, until they didn’t and I sank ankle deep into the tan and gray carbonate mud.

Slogging on, I was now sinking up to my knees with each footstep and scraping my feet and ankles against something sharp – probably shells – buried in the mud. Looking up, I could see the aqua blue of the Arabian Gulf, but there was still a fair distance to traverse.

As I pulled first one foot and then the other out of the mud the sun wasn’t nearly as pleasant as it had felt earlier. I was hot and starting to sweat. And I felt a flash of fear: “What if I get stuck out here?”


Some of us may feel this kind of fear while we review and assess which practices and beliefs to keep and which to change to equip the Association to succeed in the coming decades. This kind of organizational introspection can be uncomfortable, but it is a necessary part of growth and change. We must persist.

The Arabian Gulf was as beautifully blue up close as it looked from afar, the only sound a gentle breeze as warm water lapped at our feet. Well, OK, at my knees.

Back at the cars, as I was washing off the mud and the blood seeping from cuts on my legs and feet, Lee looked at me with pity in his eyes, “I’m so sorry, David.”

But I wasn’t sorry – not at all. I am sincerely grateful to our guides, Abdulla Al-Mansoori, Hesham Shebl and Ali Al-Shamry, for giving me this experience. Because spending a morning on Chris Kendall’s sabkha gave me a glimpse of both the past and the future.

It was a great day and I was smiling.


We can build a better AAPG. Together. Each of us contributing perspectives, voicing opinions and focusing on the future. It won’t necessarily be easy or comfortable, but we can – and we must.

The lesson I was reminded of on the sabkha is the importance of persistence, cheerful persistence.

Onward, ever onward.

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Director's Corner

Director's Corner - David Curtiss

David Curtiss is an AAPG member and was named AAPG Executive Director in August 2011. He was previously Director of the AAPG GEO-DC Office in Washington D.C.

The Director's Corner covers Association news and industry events from the worldview perspective of the AAPG Executive Director.

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