After two years at his first job preparing for an offshore federal lease sale in a frontier basin off Alaska, geologist Ernest A. Mancini was praised by his general manager and assured that if he kept up the good work, it wouldn’t be long before he’d have a corner office and a managerial position.
“I went home and said, ‘I need to look for another job.’ I knew that wasn’t going to work,” said Mancini, who enjoyed working for the company but wanted a career as a geologist.
Not too long after, Mancini and his wife, Marilyn, and their two daughters found themselves traveling to the United States’ Deep South, where Mancini accepted an assistant professor position at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
Following a gut feeling that teaching was his true calling, Mancini’s first step into the classroom – which shared a space with a museum for rocks, minerals and fossils – launched a remarkable career that reached beyond university boundaries, but was always centered around his students.
Mancini is a renowned educator and leading researcher in stratigraphy and petroleum geology of the Gulf of Mexico region, both onshore and offshore. Over the course of 40 years, he has held many prestigious positions, including:
- Director of the Center for Sedimentary Basin Studies at the University of Alabama.
- Director of the Berg-Hughes Center for Petroleum and Sedimentary Systems at Texas A&M University.
- Director of the State Oil and Gas Board of Alabama.
- State geologist and director of the Geological Survey of Alabama.
Today, at age 67, he is a professor emeritus and retired distinguished research professor at the University of Alabama, where he continues to teach graduate students on a part-time basis.
In recognition of his contributions to the field of petroleum geology, the AAPG has awarded Mancini its highest honor: the Sidney Powers Memorial Award. Mancini is the 67th recipient of the award named after one of the Association’s founding members known for his work in pure and applied geology and for his service to others.
Mancini received more than 50 letters of support for the award by AAPG members.
“Ernie has fundamentally advanced our understanding of the geology of the Gulf of Mexico region. His work has been fundamental and a significant contribution to the knowledge of this area,” said AAPG member Nick Tew, state geologist of Alabama/oil and gas supervisor.
“He was my master’s thesis director and we conducted a lot of research together over the years,” Tew said. “He has been my mentor, colleague and friend for over 30 years, and I’ve learned a lot from him.”
Mancini no doubt follows in Powers’ footsteps. Professionally, he went against the traditional academic grain by establishing integrative research and teaching centers that combine fundamental and applied geology as well as geophysics and petroleum engineering under one umbrella.
“Let’s not do science for science’s sake,” he tells students. “We need to have some applications.”
In that vein, geology students at the University of Alabama and at Texas A&M University now have teachers from both the geosciences and petroleum engineering departments and write their master’s theses on geosciences combined with reservoir simulation or other petroleum engineering subjects. Going a step beyond solving problems on paper, they test their research with field studies.
“They need to be able to think critically and figure out why a hole was dry,” Mancini said. “Not that it was a dry hole and then move on.”
Mancini’s career also took him into public service where he helped the state of Alabama jumpstart its gas production initiative in coastal waters as well as launch the state’s successful coalbed methane extraction industry using what he calls “reasonable regulations.”
However, his devotion to his students is the legacy of which he is most proud.
“Of all the things I’ve done,” Mancini said, “the teaching is most rewarding.”
Pay It Forward
From his first day as a professor, Mancini assumed the mission of imparting every ounce of knowledge he learned from the industry. He typically tossed textbooks aside and passed out his own papers for students to scrutinize.
“You would have all failed,” he exclaimed when the aspiring geologists naturally praised their professor’s work. “There are flaws in it.”
Unlike some professors who don’t allow their students to contradict their past work, Mancini invited students to think for themselves and to ask questions.
“It might not be right,” he warned of taking someone else’s work at face value. “And the next day you might drill a well and it’s dry.”
Not one to seek the spotlight, Mancini often has stayed in the wings to allow his students to grow professionally. If he revises papers, he always considers the student to be the first author and receive credit.
When he receives invitations to present on certain topics, when feasible, he puts his students front and center.
“That’s what’s going to help them professionally,” he said. “What does it do for me? It’s just another one that you put on a list. I’m a teacher. That’s what you’re supposed to do.”
His efforts have been paid forward in droves.
Former master’s student Sharbel Al Haddad, an AAPG member who works as a geologist for ExxonMobil in Houston, views Mancini as much more than a teacher.
“He was like a grandfather or father for me. I can still hear his words now, when he gave me advice. In class, he was just amazing. He would leave anything he was doing to help me,” Al Haddad recalled.
“I wish that one day I will be able to be even partially as good as he is in geology and personality.”
What’s the Problem?
Last year, Mancini was invited to return to his Pennsylvania alma mater, Schuylkill Valley High School, to share with students his experiences as a member of the first class of inductees into the school’s hall of fame.
“I’ll teach some classes for you,” he offered, and hopped right into discussions on the geochemistry of oil, the controversial aspects of hydraulic fracturing and careers in geology.
Mancini himself started out as a pre-med major – until he had to dissect animals.
“I imagined that being a person and thought there was no way I could do that,” he said.
While Mancini invested the time to earn a doctorate degree in geology, students today tend to jump into the workforce earlier, he noted.
“I try really hard with the master’s students and their theses to make sure they get practice in critical thinking if they don’t want to get that Ph.D.,” he said. “Many professors will crank out ‘cookie cutter’ theses, give a set of data and make the students go through steps one through five and then they graduate.
“I won’t give them a thesis problem,” he said. “They have to determine the problem.”
Over the course of his career, Mancini has shepherded 24 master’s students and eight doctorate students through their prospective programs.
“I try to pass on the good and the bad. I use the research to make me a better teacher,” he said. “I really enjoyed working with the Ph.D. students. I know where they all are.”
Credit Where Credit Is Due
Speaking frankly about all topics is yet another trait that has made Mancini a valuable resource for so many.
Although he is technically retired and divides his time between Northport, Ala. and Condon, Mont., he remains up to speed on industry issues. He has paid particularly close attention to the country’s shale gas boom, which has leapt onto many pages of mainstream newspapers – sometimes in not so flattering ways.
He recalled a time in the early 1980s when the state of Alabama received complaints during the boom of coalbed methane exploration and development.
“Everything was rocking and rolling and then all of a sudden people, landowners, started getting nervous and writing the newspaper saying their water wells went dry,” Mancini recalled.
However, a careful investigation by the Alabama Geological Survey could find no correlation.
Mancini said he doesn’t believe that fracturing shale is harmful – however, he does wonder whether or not some of the some chemicals used in the process might react with existing rocks beneath the earth’s surface.
“I don’t know the answer to that, and nobody seems to be asking that question,” he said.
Upon learning about the Powers award, Mancini said he felt very humbled.
“It’s an extremely high honor, and to me what makes it a particularly high honor is being in the group of individuals who have received this award,” Mancini said.
“To be in association with this esteemed group is quite overwhelming,” he said. “It’s unbelievable.”
Of course, Mancini is not one to take all the credit. He quickly attributes his recognition to many people.
“It’s not just you – you have students you have worked with, and colleagues. The work is not a single person’s endeavor,” he said. “It’s a recognition of many, many people.
“If you lose sight of that, I think you have a problem.”