Dark Horse Becomes Contender

At this year’s Imperial Barrel Awards, the annual prospect/exploration competition for universities held during AAPG annual conventions, Moscow State University won first prize.

But the school that came in second caused almost as much excitement.

And that was the University of Nebraska-Lincoln – not exactly the first school most think of when it comes to the traditional Oil Patch powerhouse universities.

Making the award even sweeter is this was the first year UNL even competed in the IBA.

Christopher Fielding
Christopher Fielding

“I don’t follow basketball,” said the team’s academic adviser, Christopher R. Fielding, who is the Coffman Chair in Sedimentary Geology, Department of Geosciences, at the university, “but … yes, indeed, it is like a major underdog making the finals, say like Baylor playing in the Big 12 football final!”

And the Big 12 analogy is a good one. To get to the finals, UNL, which represented the Mid-Continent Section, won its regional competition in April, defeating a team from last year’s IBA –winning school, conference foe the University of Oklahoma.

The second place finish, which garnered the university the Selly Cup, $10,000 and individual medals for those participating, all agreed, was something of a geological coup.

“The team’s performance at an international competition of this caliber is remarkable,” said David Manderscheid, dean of UNL’s College of Arts and Sciences. “It is a testament to the determination and intelligence of our students, and also highlights the excellence of faculty in our department of geosciences and the quality of graduate students they attract.”

Turning Things Around

And perhaps the most important member of that faculty is AAPG member Fielding, even though he says he merely acted as the IBA team’s “mentor and facilitator.”

One gets the feeling it was much more than that, and while he had confidence in his program and his students, he enjoyed the underdog status.

“Everyone we spoke to along the way expressed surprise that we were even competing let alone capable of winning the regional event.”

And that was because the University of Nebraska is not known as one of the “heavy hitters” in the geosciences, a fact Fielding readily admits.

“We have not been thought of as a major competitor among the universities that train geoscientists for industry, although we have been working hard over the past few years to redress that,” he said.

In fact, Fielding was brought to Lincoln precisely to turn that perception and reality around.

“I was hired seven years ago, primarily to raise the profile of applied geology teaching and research in the department, and have been seeing evidence of gradual gains over the past few years.”

He has had help, he says, namely from what he calls a “ … a large cohort of very supportive and generous alumni.”

They include many who made their names and fortunes in the oil industry (among them this year’s Sidney Powers medalist Marlan Downey and two other 2009 AAPG awardees, James Lowell and Larry Jones) who have contributed generously to the university’s geosciences programs.

“Some of these individuals,” Fielding says, “endowed the chair that I now occupy, and I consider it my mission to make these people proud of us while they are still around to see the fruits of their generosity.”

The Watershed

Fielding, who has been teaching since 1986 and also has worked four years with BP Exploration, says the IBA was a watershed for the university and the department.

“So achieving second place, actually even just making the finals, was a great boost to our program,” he said. “It raised the morale and self-confidence of our students, our profile within the university, and within the professional and scientific community at large.”

Fielding said that one of his goals was to get his team to believe it could win.

“I impressed upon my students that they had every chance of doing well,” he said. “I knew that they had prepared thoroughly, and I knew they would be competitive. One can only prepare to the best of one’s ability, then it is down to how everyone else performs relative to you. I told them that, and they performed with commendable maturity throughout the competition.”

Specifically, he says he made himself available throughout the data analysis period to provide direction and advice.

“Otherwise I kept away from the work program,” he said. “I encouraged the students to budget their time at the outset, and to have weekly milestones that they should ensure they met. In short, I acted as a line manager in a company environment would have done, and the students did the rest.”

Some of his students claimed individual honors in Denver as well. Finishing first and second in the Student Poster Awards were team members Matt Corbett and Brian Blackstone, respectively.

Of the team, Fielding gives the ultimate praise:

“They acted in a highly professional manner,” he said, “and were I in the recruiting business, I would have had no hesitation in employing any and all of them.”

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