Saturday, August 15, 2009

Why I Became a Geologist

There are certain experiences in my youth, looking back, that most definitely drove me towards the earth sciences. First, my father is an engineer - petroleum engineer, to be exact. I'm sure that his scientific and engineering tendencies influenced my own, although he rarely talked of his work at home. When I'd ask him about what he did, he'd always reply, "I'm a fortune teller." Chemistry sets and science projects were things he was constantly putting in front of me. I was interested, to a point, mostly out of curiosity. I never considered myself passionate about those things.

I did love to collect things. I'd collect rocks, but at that time it was more because of the look or feel of the rock not at all because of my understanding (or lack thereof) about its origin. I remember finding a large, smooth river rock that was strangely out of place amongst all the others and I held on to that rock for months. It would sit on the porch with me while I blew bubbles. Sometimes I felt like it talked to me (should I admit that?). It was a magic rock to me. I collected other things too. Insects, were my favorite. Butterflies, crickets, dragonflies, wasps, bees, spiders. I had a small little cigar box that I'd keep them in, with plans to one day formally identify each species and mount them. I had enough dragonflies and butterflies to see differences among them. I never quite got there with a mounted collection, but I sure had fun getting all my specimens together. My absolute favorite insects were the cicadas, who'd molt on the pine trees in my neighborhood. I was fascinated by these gentle, buggy-eyed, big-winged critters. Thus, began my fascination with nature. (Photo courtesy of Adam Fleishman,

My dad would take us on vacations, I realized later these were always scheduled around various annual industry conventions, where we'd go camping, hiking, and takes tours of historical sites. We spent a week in Yellowstone. I saw Old Faithful and held my breath through Geyser National Park. We spent two weeks driving through Mexico, from the northern Texas border all the way down to the Yucatan Peninsula and back. We climbed and explored every public pyramid around. We learned of the ancient civilizations and the cultures of Mexico. Experiences like these, while I didn't recognize the geologic or full historical significance, incited an interest in me and encouraged me to want to learn, explore, and enjoy what lay beyond my front yard.

In school I enjoyed most subjects. Social studies and history were my least favorite, but I did ok. English and science seemed to be my strengths. And although I'm not one of those math-in-my-head-on-the-fly types, I did alright in it. I joined student council, I played in the band, and participated in several other extra-curricular activities. The Ecology Club, my senior year, worked to establish one of the inter-building areas as an outdoor oasis of flowers and fountains (it was previously a neglected, weed-ridden eyesore that everyone walked by everyday). I was involved in recycling projects and other community educational programs through the various activities in school.

When it was time to choose a college and a major, I was kind of undecided. I leaned towards the sciences because I knew the job prospects would be good. I wanted to do something that was environmentally-focused, but didn't really know what that would translate into when it came to a job. I decided on Environmental Engineering. (I told you my dad's engineering qualities were an influence!) At the time, there weren't too many schools offering Environmental Engineering degrees, so I settled for Civil Engineering with the Environmental specialty. I applied to
the University of Texas at Austin (my dad's alma-mater), was accepted into the program and prepared for dorm life away from home. That's kind of when things took an unexpected twist.

My boyfriend of a year didn't want me to leave town, saying a long distance relationship just wasn't his thing. He was my thing, though, and I ultimately chose to skip the UT program and stay in Houston. I made my decision fairly last-minute and ended up with an application into our local community college. I took four semesters at San Jacinto Community College, knocking out all the basic english, history, economics, and a few electives. It was there that I truly discovered geology.

I was listed as a Pre-Engineering major on the San Jac records and I was scouring the list of available electives to add as transferable credits for a UH program. There sat black and white...staring up at me from the course listing. Physical Geology with Kristi Higginbotham was my first formal geology class. My initial thoughts, "oh yeah, we're going to learn about rocks" -- with a bit of sarcasm. Wow, was I ignorant! We went on field trips, we examined rock and mineral samples, we discussed the physical processes of the Earth. I found that it was easy for me and I enjoyed it. I never understood why some people in the class struggled with the rock and mineral identifications. The classroom samples were so textbook and the defining characterstics of cleavage planes, hardness, streak, and others made it fairly simple to identify. Of all the other classes I was taking and had taken, this class was the first that seemed truly effortless and exciting.

Ms. Higginbotham used the next semester to experiment with an Environmental Geology course. My class was her first to undergo the program and helped her to establish a lesson plan that she could use for future classes. The experience was fun and our tight-knit class did a lot of things together. We spent part of the class learning about the local EPA superfund site (the Brio Site) and got to know the full history of what occurred, the impact to the neighborhood and the politics that were involved with cleaning up the mess (that was back in 1996, or so). We also organized an extra-curricular group we called E.G.O. (Environmental Geology Organization). We did a lot of things that year that further encouraged us to be involved in our communities and to understand the importance of geology.

When it came time to transfer to the University of Houston, I had to decide what major to focus on. I could no longer skate through with Pre-Engineering tagged on to my file. UH didn't seem like the place for me to pursue Civil Engineering with an Environmental specialty. Geology was calling to me. I met with the counselor in the Geoscience Department (now called the Department of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences) and realized that I could easily get a double major in Geology and Geophysics, for the price of a few extra math classes. Well, sign me up!

The range of geology classes offered by the university was fantastic and their field program was great (and still is - check out my earlier blog regarding field camps!). The classes were small and the groups were close. I have many friends from my time spent at UH. One afternoon, while studying in the mineral lab, an upperclass student came in asking if anyone would be interested in a part-time job working for a geoscience consulting group. The job would involve binding reports, preparing graphics for figures/maps, and other intro level and admin-type tasks. Several of my friends took the job. I interviewed, but ultimately chose to work on campus, as it was closer to home for me. I eventually, though, ended up at that same company with my friends working a job that payed well above minimum wage and gave me exposure to seismic data, deepwater sedimentary environments, salt tectonics and what it was like to work with professionals in the major and large independent oil and gas companies.

I've grown tremendously since my starting days at that company. Some consider it strange that I've been there for what is now going on 10 years. I suppose that is rather unusual in these days of what seems like 2-year term limits for most everyone else. But I've climbed the ranks from the newbie student assistant up to Project Manager, and grown in my technical and soft skills every step of the way. I've had the priviledge to work on some of the coolest frontier exploration projects with some of the coolest people.

Looking back, some have asked if I regret not going to UT or pursuing the engineering career. I can honestly say, 15 years later married to my high-school sweetheart with three beautiful girls and a successful professional career....NO WAY!

I love what I do, I love my family, and I still think those smooth river rocks are pretty magical.

No comments:

Post a Comment