Murray Award winner

Geology: His Classroom, Inspiration and Passion

John Underhill, a former European professional football referee with a taste for teaching and classical Greek culture. Photos courtesy of John Underhill
John Underhill, a former European professional football referee with a taste for teaching and classical Greek culture. Photos courtesy of John Underhill

For John R. Underhill, who will receive the AAPG Grover E. Murray Memorial Distinguished Educator Award this month in Pittsburgh, the natural landscape – literally what’s in front of us – is not just a sight to behold.

It’s a narrative.

“For as long as I can remember,” he says, “I have been fascinated with reading a landscape and what its shape can tell us about what lies buried below.”

Underhill, who is Chair of Stratigraphy for the Grant Institute of Geology at The University of Edinburgh, says transmitting his excitement to his students has been not only his greatest joy, but his greatest challenge.

“I always thought if a teacher was not enthusiastic about his or her subject, it sent the wrong message.”

And even then, enthusiasm can’t do it alone.

“I think it’s also important to be flexible and create an atmosphere conducive to constructive challenge such that any student feels able to ask any question without fear of failure or judgment,” he said, “however daft they may seem, there are no daft questions.”

Further, Underhill believes the study of geology is really a study of and about all of us; hence it shouldn’t be relegated to a few classrooms on the second floor of the science building.

“To my mind, geology is of such fundamental importance to the earth and man’s place on it, that it should be a core subject in all schools and something that reaches out to the wider world,” he said.

“It’s one thing knowing and thinking one understands how earth processes operate and the impact they have,” he continued, “it is quite another to be able to communicate it effectively and to place it in context, be that societal need for resources, climate change or the impact of geology on past (Classical Greek) civilizations (Geo-Archaeology).”

It’s Greek to Him

As for that last example, he’s proving it.

A few years back, Underhill lead an international team that undertook geoscientific tests to investigate whether Odysseus’ homeland, ancient Ithaca, could have been located on the western Kefalonian peninsula called Paliki.

Why is this important?

Because if Underhill and his team are able to show that an ancient marine channel separated the peninsula from the main body of the island in classical times, they will solve a problem that has been perplexing Greek scholars and archeologists for years: Why doesn’t the modern island of the same name fit with Homer’s original geographical description of it in the Odyssey?

This is the kind of stuff that keeps Greek mythology majors up late.

Underhill, who was a featured speaker on the subject at the 2007 AAPG European Region Energy Conference and Exhibition in Athens, Greece, knows that integration must not only take place within school curricula, but between academia and industry as well.

Award-winning educator John Underhill has a special passion for Greek culture – and at the core of that relationship is geology.
Award-winning educator John Underhill has a special passion for Greek culture – and at the core of that relationship is geology.

“I am delighted to have been a member of AAPG since 1984, some 29 years now,” he said, a bit proud of his academic credentials in a professional society adding that, “It has given me so much through conferences, publication and fellowship over that time.”

For the record, he is associate professor in the Institute of Petroleum Engineering at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh; Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh; Fellow of the Geological Society since 1982 (Council Member 2005-08); was head of the Earth and Planetary Sciences Research Group in the School of Geosciences; and was the president of the European Association of Geoscientists and Engineers for 2011-12.

He also was the 1998-99 Allan P. Bennison Distinguished Lecturer in North America, presenting the talk “The Role of Propagating Normal Faults in Controlling Sequence Variability and Sediment Dispersal in Rift Systems.”

He always seems to be teaching.

But along the way, he also has worked for Shell in various locations throughout the globe, including London and The Hague, and spent time with BP in Glasgow and Norsk Hydro, which, he says, was beneficial to both business and academia.

“It allowed me to maintain links with industry and develop my own skill set to train, educate and inform a generation of students” – students who keep changing, demanding more.

“I try to keep the content of lectures up-to-date,” he said. “Making them topical, timely and relevant is essential as is being enthusiastic.”

I Get a Kick Out of …

There’s something else, too, that has occupied his time, his life – something that lies between avocation and recreation: For over 28 years he was a soccer referee of which 14 included officiating on international FIFA matches between 1994-2008.

And as dissimilar as geology and the sport may seem, they both represent something similar to Underhill.

“I have been fortunate,” he said, “to follow two hobbies as careers.”

Growing up, he says, he loved sports, generally, but soccer, specifically – and played through college.

“Having picked up an injury whilst representing my university, I turned to refereeing as a way and means to get back fit and back on the pitch.”

And then a strange thing happened.

“I discovered I had a greater aptitude for it than playing,” he said. “I am not sure if that made me a failed footballer or a promising referee.”

You’d have to put money on the latter, for he has officiated at the top levels of Scottish and European Football for years, including 132 SPL matches and more than 40 international matches – including World Cup games.

And there was at least one time when his worlds of geology and football meshed perfectly – at the 2008 AAPG International Conference and Exhibition in Cape Town, South Africa, when he “refereed” a debate on the causes of the infamous Lusi mud volcano in northeast Java.

“I readily agreed to taking on what I saw as a fascinating and challenging task as a facilitator with a front-row seat,” he said at the time.

He is now retired from the sport – and for him, not a moment too soon.

Or as he says, “Before I made any highly contentious decisions that would haunt me forever.”

He’s being modest. One imagines that many students grow up to be coaches and players – and somebody has to deal with them.

His joy, though, and the reason for the award have been found in the classroom where he strives to inform, educate and inspire.

“There is nothing like seeing a student suddenly grasping a difficult concept,” Underhill said, “It is those Eureka moments that make it all worthwhile.”

“It is a rewarding and enriching experience to see others that you have in some small way helped then go on to succeed in their chosen career path.”

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