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Foundation For Success: EES Graduate Students

By Guy Spriggs

In the field of geology, the University of Kentucky is not traditionally known as a petroleum school. But through participation in the Imperial Barrel Award (IBA), a team of graduate students in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences (EES) not only gained invaluable insight into the oil industry, but elevated UK’s standing as a geoscience program.

The IBA, organized by the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, is an annual basin evaluation competition where participants analyze geological and geophysical data sets for oil-producing viability. Teams this year were challenged with determining hydrocarbon potential for an area in New Zealand’s Taranaki Basin and presenting their findings to a panel of industry experts.

The contest – started in 2007 and designed after a course created at London’s Imperial College in the late 1970s – gives students the opportunity to experience the creative processes and high-tech science that are the foundation of the energy industry today. The IBA is not only a highly respected program, but is also one of the most rigorous scientific competitions for graduate students.

110 teams from 31 countries competed in last year’s IBA contest (2013). Each team works for 8 weeks on their own time to analyze the given data and develop their presentation for the content. Judges select the winning team based on the technical quality and clarity of their presentation.

Participation in the contest is completely driven by student interest and motivation, and 2014 marked the first year UK competed for the award. UK’s team consisted of five EES graduate students: Levent Akinci, Julie Floyd, Zac Moore, Timothy Pryshlak and Phil Wolfe. They were assisted by undergraduates Alyssa Eliopoulos and Chase Lockhart and received mentoring from EES faculty Derek Sawyer and Mike McGlue, as well as Kentucky Geological Survey staff scientists Rick Bowersox, Cortland Eble, Steve Greb, David Harris, John Hickman, and Brandon Nuttall.

Just a few weeks removed from their work for the IBA, UK’s graduate students are already seeing benefits from their participation in the contest.

“I went to a career fair in Oklahoma and handed out my resumes. They saw my experience with IBA and it was the first thing they asked about,” said Wolfe. “Even in interviews, the main part was asking about my role in IBA, how I showed leadership in IBA.”

“I have an internship coming up this summer, so [the IBA] was a really good opportunity for me to get a head start and understand what I’ll be doing,” added Moore.

Floyd and Pryshlak both joined UK’s IBA team in response to encouragement from faculty advisors and suggestions in interviews with industry professionals. “I had an interview with an oil company, and I don’t have much experience with this. The company [I interviewed with] suggested IBA so I could make myself better prepared for an internship or career in the industry,” Pryshlak explained.

“Everyone says the IBA program is a really good way to get your feet wet. Employers like to see you’ve had some exposure to the work, and the IBA is a great starting place for that exposure,” Floyd added.

The IBA also provided new opportunities for undergraduates Eliopoulos and Lockhart, who could not officially compete in the contest but earned credit for their role on the team. “It was a great experience because it mimics how an exploration team would actually appraise a prospect,” Eliopoulos said. “It’s the same process. It’s a great opportunity to apply knowledge. It was a great way to test out whether this work is right for me.”

In their evaluation of the Taranaki Basin, UK’s IBA team was challenged with using new technology and software to survey an area of roughly 100,000 square kilometers – and a depth of up to 18,000 feet.

“We were given 215 seismic lines to analyze, so we had to decide where the important information was,” Pryshlak explained. “Analyzing just one seismic line in detail could take weeks, so we had to be choosy in deciding where to apply our research.”

Students first had to identify potential petroleum systems and then analyze the geochemical data they were given to measure the each system’s viability. This process includes assessing the maturity of each the system – evaluating if it is developed enough to produce oil – and determining if the reservoir is large enough and contained enough to be a viable site.

Access to these data sets and technologies allowed team members to apply what they’d learned while developing new skill sets. “Getting to know the computer programs was probably the hardest part,” said Eliopoulos. “They are powerful tools, and it’s a great opportunity to use them before we’re in the industry.”

Wolfe believes he owes the internship he landed this summer to his new familiarity with in-demand software and technologies. “They asked if I used certain programs and I said I had used them for IBA,” he said. “For them, being able to see I’m ready to go with these programs was huge.”

For Pryshlak, the benefits of participating in the IBA only became apparent after their strenuous work was done. “When you’re doing it you’re worrying and so crammed for time you don’t think about how much you’re actually learning. I realize now how many things I did that I’d never done before and can now tell people I know how to do,” he explained.

“Three of us are going to internships this summer, and all of us will succeed at what we want because of this knowledge we’ve gained,” Moore added.

Team members used the IBA to develop new skills individually and as a unit, first splitting up the work and bringing it all together for practice presentations leading up to the contest. Wolfe says they really benefited from working together and making decisions as a team. “No one was over our shoulder saying to look in one direction or avoid another. We had a lot of freedom as individuals and as a team to decide the direction we wanted to take,” explained Wolfe.

Participants in the IBA say they aren’t the only ones to benefit from the contest – they also believe UK’s EES department will continue to flourish because of the foundation they have laid. As future teams compete in the IBA, they will be able to use this year’s experiences to raise UK’s profile.

“It’s important to pass on the data set and the presentation. It will really help students prepare. It was hard to get started without a sample presentation for the appraisal of an entire system,” Eliopoulos said.

The IBA provided these students with a unique opportunity to use their fundamental knowledge in real world applications and, in doing so, help transform the image of EES at UK. As team members move forward – further laying the groundwork for their individual careers – they are confident the future holds more success for the department.

“I think it will continue and I hope UK is successful. I hope in 5 years when I say I graduated from Kentucky someone will say, ‘Wow, Kentucky’s really great. They won IBA this year.” And I’ll be able to say I helped start that,” explained Wolfe.

“It’s great for the department. I think we’ll see a lot more students have success getting to where they want to go professionally,” he said.