Out of Africa: UH Trains First Class of 'Homegrown' Oil Geophysicists

Capetown Geophyiscists

More than a dozen new homegrown petroleum geophysicists are ready to enter the oil industry in Africa thanks to a University of Houston program at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

UH has long been known as an international energy educator, with cooperative programs from China to South America. Now South Africa joins the list, with UH completing its first program in petroleum geophysics at the Master of Science level in Africa. UH representatives and 14 graduates participated in a graduation ceremony in Cape Town recently.

Africa desperately needs educated petroleum workers. However, students sent from Africa to Europe or the United States for advanced-degree study seldom return to their home country because of the numerous opportunities abroad created by the global workforce shortages. This exacerbates the workforce shortages for African nationals in their home country. The UH program has prepared these African graduate students to work for the various oil companies operating in their countries.

Created specifically to address these workforce shortages, the UH program was able to capitalize on UCT's strong reputation and an exceptional geology program oriented toward the mining sector - one of the strongest economic drivers in South Africa. UCT, however, did not have the large faculty team needed to carry out an intensive program in petroleum geophysics. That is where well-recognized faculty in applied geophysics and geology from UH were able to complement UCT faculty members with their considerable real-world petroleum experience with exploration and production companies in Houston - the world's energy capital.
"Western companies developing petroleum resources in Africa, as well as those providing petroleum services, are being encouraged by host governments to employ African nationals in geophysics, geology and petroleum engineering," said Don Van Nieuwenhuise, director of professional geoscience programs at UH. "This serves to complement their existing expatriate workforce in each of the African countries in which they operate. Programs like ours offer a solution."

Based on a cooperative agreement between the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at UH and the Department of Geological Sciences at UCT, UH geophysics and geology professors conducted a 13-course program during the past two years using UCT's teaching and computational facilities in their geological sciences department.

Run as a UH extension program in Africa, this graduate degree program was taught by 13 professors in applied geology and geophysics, with each course being completed in a one-month period and students completing a capstone research project at the conclusion.

Giving students the ability to obtain a U.S. degree through collaborative efforts with UH helps encourage economic development in African countries and aids in the search for new petroleum reserves on the African continent. Additionally, the UH/UCT program allows African national companies or energy ministries, as well as Houston corporations working and partnering in Africa, to implement educational and workforce agreements.

"We're very interested in international collaborative programs like this one, and we're deeply indebted to the cooperation of the University of Cape Town," said John Bear, dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at UH. "I marvel at what two strong universities with complementary strengths can achieve. Through such efforts, we're contributing to solutions for the worldwide workforce shortage in petroleum geology and geophysics."

The initial UH/UCT program was largely sponsored by the South African national petroleum company, PetroSA, providing funding and fellowships for the students, as well as providing the funds for the entire computer lab and all the servers. Schlumberger - based in Houston and the world's leading oilfield services provider - donated licenses of their highly technical Petrel software that allowed the students to obtain hands-on instruction and experience with industry-standard seismic interpretation software and 3-D seismic data sets during their coursework and capstone projects.

Further discussions between UH, UCT and PetroSA led to planning additional programs in Cape Town, with UH conducting another Master of Science program in petroleum geophysics to start in summer 2009. Plans involve the same collaborative model based on the success of the initial program.

Sponsorships throughout Africa are now being sought for student candidates for the next UH M.S. program in petroleum geophysics to be held at UCT, with PetroSA and several Houston petroleum corporations indicating they will sponsor highly qualified students for the program. A maximum of 30 students will be accepted on a competitive basis for the next program with application deadlines in February 2009.

"We are extremely pleased with the outcome of the UH program and the caliber, quality and work ethic of the graduates from South Africa," said John F. Casey, chair of the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences in UH's College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. "These students worked hard through a difficult program and are now well equipped to enter the petroleum industry in Africa, with more than 90 percent of them already having secured jobs in the oil industry as professional geophysicists."

Plans also are being discussed for UH M.S. degree programs in petroleum geology and petroleum engineering in Cape Town within the next two years. These programs are already taught at the UH campus in Houston.