Paul Mann Receives AAPG’s Distinguished Educator Award

The Grover E. Murray Distinguished Educator Award Recognizes Outstanding Contributions to Geological Education

“The best teachers are those who show you where to look, but don’t tell you what to see.” -- Alexandra K. Trenfor

Paul Mann
Paul Mann, professor of geology, tectonics and petroleum geology, has been the primary advisor for 44 master’s degree students, 22 doctoral degree students and 11 post-doctoral researchers at UH and UT Austin.

These words resonate with Paul Mann, professor of geology, tectonics and petroleum geology at the University of Houston’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.

Anyone who knows Mann knows he goes out of his way to guide his research students at UH’s College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.

His years of dedication to teaching excellence caught the attention of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG), who awarded him their 2020 Grover E. Murray Distinguished Educator Award. The annual award, which is international in scope, was also awarded in 2020 to Abel Idowu Olayinka at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria.

It is granted in recognition of outstanding contributions to geological education. According to the AAPG, the contributions “most often involve the teaching and counseling of students at the university level, contributions to the education of the public, and management of educational programs.” Mann is the second EAS faculty member to receive this award, following Janok Bhattacharya in 2007.

“I enjoy getting students excited about topics,” Mann said of his personal teaching philosophy. “We call it taking ‘ownership’ of a topic. Instead of my hovering around a student with a detailed to-do list of tasks, students become passionate about their project and figure out their own path and timeline.”

Watching a student engage and eventually take off, Mann said, is the sign of an educators’ success.

In a career spanning almost four decades and two universities, Mann has been the primary research advisor of nine undergraduate senior thesis projects, 44 master’s degree students, 22 doctoral degree students and 11 post-doctoral researchers at UH and UT Austin.

As to why he goes the extra mile to push his students forward, it’s “because that’s the way I was treated. That’s the way my parents treated me. That’s how my undergraduate and graduate mentors helped me. And it’s how senior scientists and faculty helped me as a young scientist and instructor at the University of Texas. In academia, we are all the end product of a long chain of mentors.”

From Researcher to Educator

Mann’s career began in 1983 as a full-time researcher at the University of Texas’ Institute of Geophysics.

He noticed some of the more productive researchers at the institute recruited graduate students, even though they were not tenure-track faculty members. He followed their lead and recruited UT grad students to assist his research group.

As his student group grew, he realized it would be more efficient to teach all the students as a group in a classroom setting, rather than meeting with them individually. With support from a tenured faculty collaborator, Mann was approved to teach graduate-level classes on Caribbean geology and basins.

In 2011, he moved from UT to the University of Houston. At UH, he is a Robert E. Sheriff Endowed Professor and the director of the Conjugate Basins, Tectonics and Hydrocarbons Consortium. The project began at UT in 2005 and is a long-term collaboration with geoscientists at the University of Stavanger in Norway. The project currently includes salaries for undergraduate and graduate student researchers and postdocs. It is funded by a group of oil companies, most of which are based in the Greater Houston area. The project forms a virtuous circle by providing companies data analysis and products useful for their exploration. In turn, the companies employ UH graduates and gain experts in their areas of exploration interest.

Benefits of Collaboration

He stresses to his students the importance of collaboration. In weekly meetings, his students share their research progress, seek input from the group, and share time-saving tips.

Teamwork is also important, Mann adds, because oil companies, which employ many of his graduates, “have figured out the company can grow and have more complex projects if they engage individuals to work seamlessly as a team. The uncommunicative employee in a corporate setting does not last long.”

Although some of his students have never met him or their peers in person because of the pandemic, “I can say our consortium is as productive, or even more productive, because everyone in the group is isolated at home. Everyone has more time alone, which can be a good thing for researchers who are analyzing a complex dataset or writing chapters of a dissertation.”

In 2020, the 18 members of the consortium made 62 oral and poster presentations at conferences and published 33 peer-reviewed journal articles. Three group members graduated with doctoral degrees, and three others graduated with their master’ degree. All six graduates moved on to full-time jobs in the oil industry.

In light of these accomplishments, he shares a quote from David Hassel: “We’re most productive when we are alone; we’re most innovative in groups.”

- Rebeca Trejo, College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics

Mann shares these articles as examples of his students' accomplishments that he is proud of:

  • Conjugate Basins, Tectonics and Hydrocarbons (CBTH) Consortium Ph.D. candidate Jack Kenning recently won 1st place in the Student Poster Competition at the AAPG 2019 Annual Convention and Exhibition. Kenning is currently with ConocoPhillips in Houston.
  • UH Team won second place in the Gulf Coast section of the Imperial Barrel Award (IBA) Program of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG) on April 30, 2020.
  • UH Team won first place in the Imperial Barrel Award (IBA) Program International Competition on May 18, 2019. They previously won first place in the Gulf Coast Section competition on March 17.
  • The CBTH Consortium was featured in GEO ExPro, in an article on the conjugate margins of the Gulf of Mexico. The work highlighted was the CBTH-supported master's research of Andrew Steier, who is now an explorationist with the GOM group at Total in Houston. Other CBTH work this study was based on includes Luan Nguyen (Nguyen and Mann, 2015) (Nguyen is now in a Ph.D. program at Rice University) and a 2018 Ph.D. study by Pin Lin (now at Chinese National Offshore Oil Company in China).