Weglein’s Journey in Fundamental High Impact Seismic Research

As a young man growing up in the South Bronx, Arthur Weglein never imagined he would end up with a long and illustrious career in theoretical physics, honored with a distinguished chair or that he would join the faculty at the University of Houston.

Now at the senior level of his career, Weglein, the Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished University Chair in Physics at University of Houston, has been invited to give two keynotes this year. One will be at the Society of Exploration Geophysicists/Kuwait Oil Company (SEG/KOC) workshop in Kuwait City, Kuwait, in early December, while the other keynote was for the post- convention workshop on “The Business Value of Multiple Identification and Removal—Status, Challenges, and Road Ahead” at SEG’s International Exposition and 88th Annual Meeting in October in Anaheim, California.

Arthur Weglein

Weglein is the founding director of the Mission-Oriented Seismic Research Program (M-OSRP) at UH and is known in the research community to generate some controversy with his approach to processing: Weglein has pioneered and delivered seismic processing methods that can be achieved directly and without subsurface information.

The inability to provide adequate subsurface information required in current seismic methods has contributed to dry hole drilling. In both of his keynotes, he wants to communicate to the next generation of physicists that along with the recent progress and delivery, there are serious, significant challenges that will need new visions and original thinking.

“There are complexities and serious challenges in the seismic world that are far beyond all of our current capability, methods and concepts. I want [students] to be excited about that opportunity and the need for fundamentally new ideas and concepts,” Weglein said. “That’s the real test of your mettle as a scientist, not only can you be disruptive and provide contributions, respect the past and improve upon it, but are you able to see those that will go beyond you and encourage that.”

From Industry to Academia

Weglein’s career in the seismic industry spanned 25 years before entering academia, where he said he was fortunate to work under visionary managers who were willing to bet on research that took years to deliver and few others supported.

“They knew that with fundamental directed research that every year we would not necessarily have anything to show, they just gave a small group a chance,” Weglein said.

To develop game-changing capability his research needed to be disruptive, making other researchers and experts alike uncomfortable. Weglein recognized a disconnect between the reality of the successes in drilling, for example, a one-in-10 success rate in the frontier areas of the deep water Gulf of Mexico, and what researchers often are communicating and reporting as a perfect 100 percent success rate of their individual methods and overall seismic effectiveness. “Within that disconnect resides a tremendous opportunity to identify and address problems whose solution will have the biggest positive impact on our ability to locate and produce hydrocarbons,” Weglein said.

He discovered the best way to identify and define major seismic challenges was to talk to the people making drilling decisions, learning what works and what doesn’t and under what circumstances.

Even though he has had pushback during his time as a researcher, he said that is a normal part
of science—every major new idea has always been obstructed by experts of the time. He is quick to remind his students of that and advises that they hold steady, keep working hard towards success and delivery, especially when students face technical hurdles and are discouraged when faced with skepticism and obstruction.

“If what you propose to scientists makes them comfortable, then it’s not new. Staying within the comfortable, mainstream conventional thinking will not address significant outstanding challenges. If you see a certain discomfort, then you know it’s new and then the question is: how are you going to get support from people who are uncomfortable with you?” Weglein said.

Despite his over two decades of experience in the industry, Weglein’s goal since the start of his career was always to become a professor.

Weglein said conveying passion for physics to students is the most important responsibility he has as a professor and the most enjoyable part of his job. Influenced by his own experience as an undergraduate student, his passion for physics started at City College of New York, (CCNY) passed along by the excitement his physics professor Martin Tiersten radiated when he taught.

From South Bronx to Houston

His original career goal led him to the energy capital of the world, Houston, and to the University of Houston, where he has been a professor for 18 years.

Weglein said the mission on which UH was based aligns with his own working class background. Born in South Bronx and descended from Jewish Lithuanian immigrant grandparents, Weglein believes institutions like UH are what make America special and the beacon of hope for the world.

“UH is an example of the type of university that makes America exceptional. The Cullen family established UH to give working men and women without privilege, without special background and pedigree a chance,” Weglein said. “I’m very proud to be here. I tell our students they need to be proud, that this school is part of what makes America special.”

He finds students’ efforts to work hard to be ingrained in American culture. He believes this is the University of Houston’s greatest asset, especially during his ongoing research alongside students he believes will make significant contributions to the seismic industry.

Weglein said he is deeply grateful for the strong support and encouragement he has received and continues to receive. He never expected to be where he is today from his beginnings in the South Bronx.

“If you said, ‘What do you wish?’ I would have said, ‘I wish my grandparents and mother could see how what they have sacrificed, encouraged and given me, and their devotion to America that led to so much for me and my wife, Chris, and our children and grandchildren,’” Weglein said.

“I will always remember; I am enormously grateful, extremely fortunate and truly blessed.” Weglein was the SEG Distinguished Lecturer in 2003 and received the Townsend Harris Medal from CCNY/CUNY in 2008. He received SEG’s Reginald Fessenden Medal in 2010, for his contributions to exploration seismology. In 2016, he was awarded SEG’s highest honor and recognition, the Maurice Ewing Medal. He co-authored a graduate textbook for Cambridge University Press with Bob Stolt in 2012, and in January 2018 was selected to be Co-Editor-in-Chief (along with Nafi Toksoz of MIT) of the Journal of Seismic Exploration.

- Janet Miranda, article appeared in UH Energy’s Connections newsletter