Roger Steinberg

RogerSteinbergHowI’ve really enjoyed reading the “How I Got into Geology” columns in the CCGS Bulletin each month. Some geologists caught the fever early in life, some at a later date. I did both.

I admit it here publicly for the first time—I was a science nerd as a kid (see elementary school photo from the early 1960’s). In the first grade, other boys said they wanted to be a fireman, a policeman, or a cowboy, and I claimed that I wanted to be an astronomer. Later, I got interested in bugs and spent many happy hours catching and identifying them. My parents helped nourish my interest in science by buying me a net, the Golden Guide to Insects, and a small microscope.

By junior high school my chief interest had become earth science. I grew up in southern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania where I collected and identified minerals, rocks, and fossils. I even won honorable mention in a county-wide science fair for my study of bedrock and soils. Mr. Long, my science teacher in both the 7th and 8th grades, encouraged these efforts. I believe that he secretly wished that he had been a geologist. He took several of us on weekend field trips to collect Pennsylvanian-aged plant fossils or rare minerals from the spoil heaps of 19th century chromite mines in the serpentine barrens of Lancaster County.

And then I hit high school. By the time I graduated, I had suffered through such abysmal science classes that all interest in the subject had been driven out. I entered Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC not knowing what I wanted to do. The German literature professor thought I should major in German, but I couldn’t even understand the English translations of what we read—the writings of Kant, Schopenhauer, and Hegel. I liked my Old Testament religion course, but not enough to major in the subject. I finally decided, on my own, to return to an old love—Geology. My Wake Forest Physics professor suggested I get a degree in Physics and then go to grad school for Geophysics. Physics as a major, are you kidding?

Since Wake Forest did not offer Geology, after my Freshmen year I transferred, sight unseen, to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville (or as I like to describe it, the original UT), primarily because my Wake Forest roommate’s Dad was a UT graduate who constantly praised the place. It was a lucky choice. Good Geology classes and profs, great rocks, and after a 40-minute drive, I could be backpacking in the Smoky Mountains, which, to paraphrase a character from the movie Jeremiah Johnson, I came to consider “God’s finest sculpturings.”

I gravitated to hard rock and Economic Geology because that seemed to me to be the discipline where ‘real Geology’ and field work were still being done. And that’s also where the bearded, flannel shirt-wearing, beer-drinking geologists seemed to be most abundant.

I liked the geographic area so much that I stayed at UT (remember, that’s Tennessee) for grad school and a Master’s degree. While in school, I landed interesting summer jobs. For two Summers I worked with Conoco’s mineral department on a geophysics crew, crawling through the swamps of Georgia and South Carolina, looking for ‘massive sulfide’ ore deposits. I also lived in extreme northwestern Alaska for three months, where I spent the July 4th Bicentennial in a small tent, weathering a snowstorm that blew over from Siberia. There were just two of us, and we worked for the Bering Straits Native Corporation out of Nome, doing regional geochemical reconnaissance of their land. Very interesting geology can be found in that part of Alaska, including placer tin and tungsten deposits. The Native Corporation didn’t take very good care of us, however. To this day, my Mom doesn’t know how close I came on several occasions to death or serious injury. There was a plane crash, a near-crash in a helicopter, and once we had to hike through 20 miles of rugged tundra after being stranded without food for four days.

It took me several years to get through grad school because my thesis advisor left after my first year to take another job, and I had to drop out a few times to earn money. I learned carpentry and built houses, I waited tables at a restaurant, and I worked in a button factory—whatever I could find. I also did a six-month stint as a geologist for Union Carbide, evaluating the uranium potential of central Oklahoma, the Texas panhandle, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

In 1980, shortly before graduation, I considered taking a job as a mining geologist in one of the underground zinc mines in east Tennessee. Good thing I didn’t, as they soon closed. Instead, I opted to go to work for Hanna Mining Company out of St. Louis, looking for ‘Mississippi-Valleytype’ lead and zinc deposits in Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. I also worked one cold winter in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in an underground gold mine where we were doing exploratory drilling. When the price of metals cratered in mid-1982, I was laid off, as was everyone else in the office.

Fortunately, I managed to get a job soon after as a production geologist with Exxon. I convinced them that the skill sets used in mineral exploration and oil and gas work were the same. Someone with Exxon said, “You—Corpus Christi!” and that’s how I ended up here. I’ll say this for Exxon, I received an excellent education, including 3-week-long in-house ‘schools’ in Houston devoted to subjects such as well-logging and drilling.

Although Exxon probably made millions from wells I proposed in Duval County, it wasn’t an ideal fit. One month, toward the end of my 4-year employment with Exxon, I was the only geologist out of about 30 who had any prospects to present at the monthly IC (Investment Committee) meeting of the geological and engineering managers. Everyone liked my ideas, and signed-off to drill 3 wells above a salt dome in McMullen County. Afterwards, my supervisor came to my office and shut the door behind him (never a good sign). He said, “You know Roger, it didn’t bother me, but it came to the attention of several people in the room that you asked them to spend a million and a half dollars wearing hiking boots and baggy pants.” My first words were, “But these are nice pants!” And they were—brand new $60 pants that my wife picked out. OK, they were a bit baggy and she is an artist. I’ll take credit for the hiking boots. I figured that since I was standing and they were all sitting behind tables, no one would even notice my feet. I guess I was wrong.

So I wasn’t really surprised when I was among about a third of the geology cadre in Exxon’s Corpus Christi office who were laid off mid-1986 after the price of oil cratered. Instead of immediately looking for another job, as I had when I was laid off from the minerals business several years earlier, I used my severance money to travel, and I vowed to not stop traveling until it was all spent. I flew to the west coast twice, spent a month in Europe with my wife, toured the national parks of Brazil, and visited game parks in east Africa. Thanks, Exxon!

I wasn’t sure what I was going to do upon returning to Corpus Christi. I considered writing to coal companies and environmental geology firms, offering to stay out of their industries, for a fee, lest those industries crater as had the minerals business and the oil field shortly after I joined each as a professional. Maybe I was a jinx. Instead, I turned to consulting. My first job was for the Wilderness Society. They wanted me to examine the data, methodology, and conclusions of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s draft assessment of the oil potential of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on the North Slope of Alaska. They were hoping I could uncover a ‘smoking gun’ that would blow the government’s reserve estimates out of the water as being too optimistic. I found a few places in the reports where they might have been optimistic, but several instances where they were probably too conservative in their estimates. I also pointed out that much of the uncertainty could be resolved with a few strategically-placed drillholes. Funny, they didn’t send any additional work my way.

Shortly after that, W-2 (Dick White and Dick Wilshusen) offered me a place to work and plenty of business as a sub-contractor, doing oil and gas exploration with them, and I accepted. Two finer gentlemen could not be found in the oil and gas business, and I learned a lot about being an Independent from them both. Since Exxon was so self-contained, I really didn’t know much about geological work in that capacity. Several years later, I moved on to do consulting with Magnum Producing and Operating Company. Magnum was another great place to work, and Avinash Ahuja is a great guy to work for. In fact, that’s true, really, of everyone I had the good fortune to meet or work with as an Independent in the oil business in Corpus Christi.

In 1990, Andy Scott, who I worked with at W-2, told me about a newspaper ad that he had seen for a job teaching Geology at Del Mar College. I applied, was hired, and changed careers one more time. (Thanks again, Andy!) I tried to keep doing consulting work while also teaching, but soon found that there wasn’t enough time for both. After a decade, I had to apply and interview at Del Mar a second time, because my job became a tenure-track position. Teaching college, which I’m still doing in the capacity of Associate Professor of Geology at Del Mar College, is a good fit for me. In a way, I was preparing for teaching my whole career–I collected tons of rocks and photos from all the places I had worked or visited, and I now use them as teaching specimens and examples. (My daughter claims that the only reason I ever photographed her as a kid was to provide scale next to an interesting outcrop or museum exhibit.)

I don’t make nearly as much money now as I could if I still worked for Exxon, but I have a whole lot more fun! I’ve taught literally thousands of students in my Physical and Historical Geology classes, and it has been very satisfying to see them develop an entirely new appreciation for the beautiful earth we all inhabit. Most of our Geology majors are recruits from these classes.

In summary, I’d have to say that, like many geologists, I have a very checkered resume, including several major career changes. Change of some type is inevitable in life, but if you are flexible, and keep trying and working hard, there will always be new opportunities!

Sorry for being so long-winded, Owen, but it’s what you might expect when you ask a Geology Prof for an explanation of something!

Roger Steinberg
Associate Professor of Geology
Del Mar College
Corpus Christi, TX 78404