Communicating science – the ‘peer-reviewed way’

Presentation Awards Pile Up for Pyles

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)
David R. Pyles
David R. Pyles

In tennis or golf, it would be something like winning the Grand Slam – garnering four prestigious awards in a one-year span.

All right, it’s taken David R. Pyles, technical research manager, Chevron Center of Research and Excellence, two years to win two J.C. “Cam” Sproule awards, a Wallace E. Pratt Memorial Award and SEPM Best Poster Presentation award.

Then again, Tiger hasn’t won all four majors in a calendar year, either.

But considering Pyles is not yet 35 and once didn’t even care for the profession for which he now works and writes award-winning papers, let’s not quibble over a few months.

“The only reason I took a geology course,” he says, thinking back to his days at California’s Riverside Community College, “was to fulfill the science requirement.

“The college offered a car mechanic certification program (his first love),” he said. “In the process of pursuing certification, I took a few additional classes so I could get an associate’s degree.”

Needless to say, Pyles, who is now research professor in the Department of Geology and Geological Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, petroleum geology was ultimately more interesting than rebuilding a 2.2L short block.

But it wasn’t just the science itself that fascinated him; it was the communication of that science to others.

“It was the special relationship between the geology itself and the writing or reports and papers.

“My work in academia has given me the perspective that it is my responsibility to report research to the community through publication and presentations at annual meetings,” he said.

“My Ph.D adviser, James Syvitski, taught me that ‘publication is the currency of our trade,’ meaning that in the academic sector, publication means everything in route to credibility.”

The Write Stuff

And Pyles knows how to trade in that currency.

Since 2000, Pyles has been awarded 10 times for his papers and presentations, including an A.I. Levorsen Award and numerous oral and poster presentations.

“Writing is one of the most important parts of the research process. In order to secure grant money to do field work, one must construct a well-written proposal.”

He should know.

In the last six years, his work as principal investigator for Chevron’s Center of Research Excellence and as principal investigator for Laser Assisted Analogs for Siliciclastic Reservoirs at the Bureau of Economic Geology has resulted in more than $4 million in grants.

Pyles says it’s not just a matter of knowing the material, but knowing how to sell it.

“The data and conclusions arising from the ensuing fieldwork must necessarily be communicated in as effective a fashion as possible to be published,” he said.

Pyles’ talent may be in understanding that the work of a geologist is not just the work done when his head is facing down.

“A great degree of one’s credibility lies not only in what one produces but in how one is able to communicate,” he said.

“To that end, writing about fieldwork is arguably nearly as important as fieldwork itself.”

One Great Machine

So how did this come about – especially for one whose favorite course in high school was wood and metal shop?

“In the four years following high school I worked full-time in warehouses, construction and retail,” he recalled, but it was in that lone geology class he learned that the things he enjoyed about being a car mechanic were essentially the same as those associated with being a geologist.

To him, that meant looking at the earth as if it were a machine.

“To be a good car mechanic you must have an intuition for physics and math and how automobiles work,” Pyles said. “The same is true for a geologist; however, your knowledge is of the earth.

“It was during that class that I abandoned my goal to be a car mechanic and I decided to pursue geology – a decision I have never regretted.”

Specifically, the J.C. “Cam” Sproule Award, which Pyles has now won two years in a row (and only one other person has done that in the award’s 36-year history), is given to an AAPG member, 35-years of age or younger, whose paper is sufficiently outstanding and judged to be the best contribution to petroleum geology.

Pyles, whose research topics include stratigraphy, sedimentology, clastic facies analysis, tectonics and sedimentation, won this year’s award for his paper on “Multiscale Stratigraphic Analysis of a Structurally Confined Submarine Fan: Carboniferous Ross Sandstone, Ireland.”

Inspirations – and Instructions

Pyles, a research professor at the Colorado School of Mines, obviously, loves to teach, but he reserves a special place for the profession.

“There are many great benefits to a career in academia,” he says, “however, because of limited resources, there is little recognition for achievement. Awards from associations like AAPG are very special because they provide high-visibility recognition for exceptional performance.”

The skills, he says, didn’t always come so naturally.

“During my experience as a geology student, I had the opportunity to study with master teachers and scientists who inspired me to constantly examine my research practice,” he said. “These mentors gave me many gifts, but the most important one was to access my critical and creative potential. They taught me that you must be a critical reader before you can become a successful writer.

“Since then, my writing skills have been honed through the peer-review process,” he continued. “The reviewers of my articles played an important role in improving readability and impact.”

But there’s just so much you can learn from within the profession.

“Also,” he says, “my wife is an English teacher who’s been busily schooling me in the writing skills I was supposed to learn 20 years ago.”

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Pyles’ Current Research Looks at Ireland Analogs


Walking across a stage to receive an honor for his work wasn’t a new experience for AAPG award winner David Pyles.

That’s because Pyles, this year’s J.C. “Cam” Sproule Memorial Award winner, was also last year’s J.C. “Cam” Sproule Award winner.

What is special about this year’s award is that Pyles’ work also was honored with the Wallace E. Pratt Memorial Award.

The Sproule award goes to the author of the best paper by a member who is 35 or younger; the Pratt award honors the year’s best paper in the BULLETIN by a person of any age.

“When I learned that I won the Pratt and Sproule awards for 2010 I was shocked and very proud – I could not believe that I won two awards for one article!” Pyles said. “This is an honor that I will remember for the rest of my life.”

Pyles’ multiple award-winning paper appeared in the May 2008 BULLETIN, titled “Multiscale Stratigraphic Analysis of a Structurally Confined Submarine Fan: Carboniferous Ross Sandstone, Ireland.”

“The Ross (sandstone) contains some of the most laterally continuous exposures of turbidites in the world and is an excellent outcrop analog for hydrocarbon reservoirs in sand-rich, distributary submarine fans deposited in structurally confined basins,” Pyles explained. “This article uses measurements of stratigraphic architecture from these exceptional exposures and younger strata in the basin-fill succession to interpret that each formation in the shallowing-upward succession reflects its own depositional system related to an evolving landscape, and each was sourced from a different direction.”

The study also quantifies vertical trends in stratigraphic architecture of the Ross Sandstone and analyzes them in a statistical manner against regional stacking patterns to test the significance of external controls on reservoir heterogeneity.

“The analysis reveals that sediment supply, source area and depositional area are statistically related to local stratigraphic architecture of submarine-fan strata including diversity of architectural elements and percent sandstone,” he said.

The results, Pyles added, are interpreted to suggest that large fans have more architectural diversity and have more reservoir heterogeneity than their smaller counter parts.

“Several physical similarities exist between submarine fan strata in the Ross Sandstone and ponded strata in northern Gulf of Mexico minibasins,” he said. “They include size and shape of architectural elements, percent sandstone, regional stacking patterns and size and shape of the overall submarine fan.

“Based on these similarities,” he concluded, “the Ross Sandstone is interpreted as an excellent outcrop analog for ponded strata in structurally confined submarine fans including those in northern Gulf of Mexico.”

Pyles currently is working with his graduate students and colleagues at Chevron on outcrops of fluvial through deepwater strata in many different basins around the world. Current field areas besides the Clare Basin in Ireland include:

  • Morillo, Guaso, Sobrarbe and Escanilla Formations in the Ainsa basin-fill succession in Spain.
  • The Lewis Shale, Fox Hills Sandstone and Lance Formations in Wyoming’s Greater Green River Basin.
  • The Pt. Loma Formation, Capistrano Formation, Scripps, Ardath, Modelo and Towsley formations in southern California.

“My research goal is to use outcrop analogs to improve the understanding of structure/stratigraphy interactions in depositional settings,” he said. “Quantitative outcrop characterization allows us to develop empirical rules that can help our industry colleagues reduce uncertainty in the interpretation of subsurface data.”

Pyles is the second person in AAPG history to win both the Sproule and Pratt awards in the same year. The first occurred in 1988, by Shanker Mitra, who holds the Monnett Chair and Professorship in Energy Resources at the University of Oklahoma, and conducts an active research program on the application of structural geology to hydrocarbon exploration and production.

Mitra also received the 2007 Pratt award.

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