Students win regional Imperial Barrel Award contest, advance to finals

Hard work, excellent mentorship pave way for students’ big win

Five geosciences graduate students — Ben Madara, Jamie Neely, Nana Xu, Seyi Ajayi and Martin Jimenez, left to right — won the regional Imperial Barrel Award competition and advance to the final, international competition in Calgary. Credit: Liz Hajek / Penn StateAll Rights Reserved.

As Martin Jimenez was introducing himself to faculty in the Department of Geosciences, a medal hanging on one researcher’s wall caught his eye. It was for the Imperial Barrel Award (IBA) contest, which was a competition he knew about and valued.

“This was in 2012, when I was an undergraduate student at California State University, Bakersfield. I was on the University Park campus for a few weeks because I was participating in the AfricaArray program. Before leaving, I wanted to make connections with faculty, and I instantly recognized the IBA medal. My university competed in the competition and it was exciting to talk with the mentor for the team who had just won a medal that year,” he said.

The medal belonged to Liz Hajek, assistant professor of geosciences, who had just mentored a team to a regional win in the competition. Hajek and Jimenez talked that day about the contest and its prominence within the oil and gas industry — Jimenez even made a point to get a photo with the medal.

Fast-forward four years: Jimenez, now a Penn State geosciences graduate student, just won his own IBA medal. He and four other geosciences graduate students — Oluwaseyi Ajayi, Benjamin Madara, James Neely and Yang Xu — won first place in the Eastern regional competition, which was held April 9 in Pittsburgh.

In the oil prospecting competition, groups of graduate students around the world have to make recommendations to a panel of oil and gas industry representatives as to whether a hypothetical company should drill in an assigned region for oil or gas. Students are given a mixed set of data, such as well logs and seismic information, and have to apply their geosciences knowledge to figure out the likeliness that oil or gas exists under the Earth’s surface there. This requires understanding how different geochemical systems under the Earth’s surface evolved and interacted with one another over millions of years. It’s a real-world problem that oil and gas industries are trying to solve today, which often requires hundreds of hours of work. Each team is assigned to a different geographical region; for 2016, the Penn State team analyzed a region in Australia known as Cooper Basin.

“In eight weeks, we completed the amount of work that would be completed over six months in industry,” said Jimenez.

Jimenez and the other students worked hard for their victory and credit, in part, the excellent mentorship from Hajek for their success.

“She doesn’t give you the answers. She makes you really think about the process or the conclusion you need to get to. She can see the ultimate goal right away, but we may need to take baby steps to get there. She provides guidance but, really, we are doing all the work,” said Jimenez.

Hajek brought the competition to Penn State when she joined the faculty in 2010. When she was a graduate student at the University of Wyoming, she had participated in the IBA competition the first year it was held.

“Having participated in the IBA gave me a good perspective on the competition,” she said. “I fundamentally believe in the educational mission of the competition, and I get really excited about helping students learn more about the science behind oil and gas prospecting.”

When Hajek arrived at Penn State she instituted a course, GEOSC 597G AAPG Imperial Barrel Award Competition, so that students could have a structured experience of working toward their end goal. Each student practices the necessary tasks that any oil prospector would undertake, such as learning different software packages, inputting data into computer modeling programs and creating geological maps.

“Very few programs internationally give students the tools to jump in and do this work like we do here,” she said. “It’s important to me that students are able to do all the tasks and that they understand the basic science behind each task. That’s one thing that differentiates being able to do a job and being a leader. My goal for this course is to improve what students and I’m here to help them.”

Hajek focuses on providing the tools and knowledge so that students can come to their own conclusions. That approach is working well, as students are preparing now for their final round of the competition, which will be held on June 17 and 18 in Calgary, Canada. They will compete against 10 other teams from the U.S. and other countries that won their respective regions.

Tony Riccardi and Penn State geosciences alumnus Rick Abegg served as industry mentors for the Penn State team.

About the Imperial Barrel Award Competition:

The Imperial Barrel Award is hosted annually by the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG) and the AAPG Foundation, which aim to foster scientific research, to advance the science of geology, to promote technology, to inspire high professional conduct, to increase public awareness of geology and to enhance professional development within the field. 

Jimenez snaps a photo with Liz Hajek's Imperial Barrel Award medal in 2012. Jimenez, along with four other graduate students, just received his very own IBA medal after winning the regional IBA competition in April. Credit: Martin JimenezAll Rights Reserved.

Last Updated June 01, 2016