Geosciences students again dominate at Imperial Barrel Award Competition

The Penn State team that took third place at the international Imperial Barrel Award Competition includes, from left, Brandon Clark, Safiya Alpheus, David Soto, Tim Witham and Haley Ramirez. The team was led by Assistant Professor of Geosciences Liz Hajek, right. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State students again finished near the top worldwide in the Imperial Barrel Award (IBA) Competition, which pits more than 100 teams against one another in an exercise to assess the petroleum potential of a given geographic basin.

The team, which for the first time included an undergraduate student, Safiya Alpheus, placed third, earning $5,000. The team included geosciences graduate students Brandon Clark, Haley Ramirez, David Soto and Tim Witham. The team advanced to the world competition after claiming first place at the eastern regionals.

Organized by the American Association of Petroleum Geologists and the AAPG Foundation, the competition gives students eight weeks to analyze seismic and geological data to determine which — if any — spots should be drilled and further investigated for oil reserves.

Each student practices the necessary tasks that any oil prospector would do, such as learning software, inputting data into computer modeling programs, and creating geological maps.

Alpheus said hard work and great mentoring were key to the team’s success.

“We worked really hard and spent a lot of long nights working on both the dataset and presentation,” Alpheus said. “I definitely think that’s our main key to success. Additionally, we really valued the advice of our faculty mentor Liz Hajek, our industry mentors, and the department.”

During the competition, students created maps of their geographic basin, conducted cost-benefit and risk analyses of drilling operations, and made strategic business recommendations about where to drill. To do this, they applied their knowledge of how rocks change over time, sea levels rise, and climate changes over millions of years in a specific region. The competition culminated in a presentation to a panel of high-level executives representing many oil companies.

Ramirez, who is weighing a career in industry when she graduates in a few months, said the real-world experiences through the competition better positioned her toward her career goals and helped her make connections ahead of an internship with Noble Energy this summer.

“I’ve done a couple interviews since then and they end up being completely about everything I learned in IBA. When they asked me if I have any experience interpreting different types of data I was able to say ‘I actually just did that for the IBA competition.’ ”

Ramirez said the team assessed an offshore area of Nova Scotia and initially feared the region was without oil. But, she said, Hajek encouraged the team to explore deeper before settling on that verdict. Hajek is an assistant professor of geosciences at Penn State who herself participated in the competition as a graduate student in 2007, the first year it was held.

“Hajek said look at it again and track down all the sources and make sure you are certain because there are a lot of dry wells in the area,” Ramirez said. “We took another look and found that the prospects were really good. We had to sort of get used to the idea that in an oil company you could have a 19 percent chance of finding oil, and that’s enough to drill.”

Ramirez said another tip from a previous competitor also proved invaluable.

“He said, ‘Honestly, just listen to Liz. Do what she says and you will be fine,’” Ramirez said. “That student could not have been more right. Every time she’s coached the team they’ve made it to regionals. The past three times she’s coached it, they’ve placed at worlds. So she knows what she’s doing.”

Last Updated June 15, 2018