Blooming Where Planted in West Texas

By Pamela Hallock, PhD

The Permian Basin region of West Texas would be a strong candidate for the bleakest area in America, if ever there is such a competition. The dust storms blowing south from Lubbock provide a sense of history; literally a “taste” of what farmers experienced in the “Dirty ‘30s.” Yet many geologists have worked there sometime in their careers since the Permian Basin has been a major source of America’s oil and gas for more than a century.

In fact, the general wisdom for employment recruitment efforts in the “Oil Patch” is to always schedule a candidate’s flight to arrive at night, in the dark due to the fact that many professional interviewees that arrived in the daylight had refused to leave the airport, requesting the next available flight out.

In summer 1978, while seeking an entry-level faculty position, I applied for an Assistant Professor position in Earth Sciences at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin (UTPB), in Odessa, Texas. Not long thereafter, I received a phone call from the UTPB Dean of Science and Engineering, asking when I could fly down for an interview. (I flew in the night before my meeting with the hiring committee.)

Oh…All the Underwhelming Support

When I was pursuing my undergraduate degree, my academic advisor encouraged me to take “practical courses” so I could do something with my education. As a Pre-Title IX female science major, I had “no right” to pursue graduate studies. A few years later, when I was pursuing my PhD in Oceanography, one of my dissertation committee members argued that I was “wasting government money” because, as a married woman, I would never do anything with my “expensive” education. Even after I had written and defended my dissertation, my major professor lamented that I wasn’t really qualified for any academic position.

With husband Bob then and now.

But there I was, after such “enthusiastic” support from mentors, eager to find a position in which I could succeed as an educator. The late 1970s was the height of an oil boom; two of the three Earth Science faculty members at UTPB, the sedimentologist and the paleontologist, had been hired away that spring by oil companies. The remaining geologist was a “hard-rock” specialist originally from Colombia. The newly hired Chair had recently retired from the US Geological Survey. He was a pioneer in economic applications of satellite imagery and readily acknowledged that he couldn’t teach paleontology. In other words, the department really needed me.

How to Bloom? Jump in With Both Feet

A staff member in the student services office had a small framed image of a flower with the motto “Bloom where you are planted” and that became my inspiration and I gave teaching my full attention and effort.

With my undergraduate background in ecology/zoology and my interdisciplinary graduate studies in oceanography, teaching paleontology was enjoyable and straightforward. And fortunately, the previous paleontologist had left an excellent teaching collection of fossils. My oceanography background also provided good insight for teaching sedimentology. Nonetheless, during my first year, teaching stratigraphy for the earth science majors, and “minerals and rocks” for the education majors often required efforts to stay a lecture or two ahead of the students. Many of the students were working days in industry jobs, so we taught most courses in the evening. Because many of the students had practical backgrounds and limited time to study, I emphasized understanding concepts and processes, rather than memorizing terminology; whenever possible I used open-book tests.

A Few Cultural Challenges

My approach did have some critics and cultural challenges, especially the paleontology course. One student told me that she wanted to get enough geology courses to apply for graduate school. On her final paleontology exam, she wrote: “I have been accepted to graduate school; I am going to the Creation Science Institute in San Diego to learn the real facts!” Another student, after taking paleontology, complained emphatically that “You teach evolution as fact; in junior college we were always told it was a theory”. To which I replied: “Look around you; most of your classmates are here to learn geology so they can become professional geologists. You are all juniors and seniors, so I consider that you are all adults. I am not here to teach you what to believe, but rather, to teach you what you need to know about the Earth and Earth history to be a competent geologist.” The lad finished out the semester, but let me know that he was dropping out to work with his father as an auto mechanic.

And Success, Too

One undergrad, for whom I also served as academic advisor, was a local who had spent his first two years at Texas A&M University (TAMU), where he was on the verge of failing out. He was one of our best students. At an advisory session at the beginning of his senior year, I noted how well he was doing in the advanced geology and chemistry courses (I had advised him to pursue a chemistry minor), and asked him if his courses at UTPB were much easier than those at TAMU. He replied: “No, if anything, the courses here are harder. But at TAMU I was in a fraternity and was partying too much. My parents told me that I could either get a job and support myself, or come home, work part time, and finish my degree at UTPB. Most of the other students are working full time, so I have more time to study than they do and they motivate me to work as hard as they do.” Based on his chemistry minor, he was accepted the following year for graduate studies in geochemistry at Texas Tech, where he earned his Master’s degree. We have communicated from time to time over the years, most recently at an American Association of Petroleum Geologists meeting earlier this year. Despite the extreme ups and downs of the petroleum industry, he has had a continuous and successful career, which he credits, in part, to my encouraging him to minor in chemistry.

Thinking Outside the Box

Once settled in Odessa, I quickly discovered the invaluable opportunities of being in the Oil Patch. In Midland, 20 miles away, two Tuesdays per month, the West Texas Geological Society hosted lunchtime speakers, often production-focused professionals. On alternate Tuesdays, The Permian Basin Section of the Society for Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists (PB-SEPM) hosted a luncheon speaker, often a noted academic researcher in sedimentology. Even better, the PB-SEPM usually brought the speaker in the previous Friday, then had a geological field trip on Saturday.

All I had to do to take my students on a professionally led field trip was sign out a university van for the weekend and announce the opportunity to my classes. I would meet the students at the campus, usually between 4 and 6 am, and we headed out for the 2 to 4 hour drive to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Palo Duro Canyon State Park, or other notable geological localities. Those trips always involved very long days; most students slept on the way home. But we all had opportunities to be in the field with and learn from a veritable “who’s who” in sedimentary geology.

A Period of Professional Growth

I still call my five years in Texas my “post-doc” in geology.

I emerged as an academic, and was twice nominated by our geology students for the “teacher of the year” competition. I also gained acceptance in the Oil Patch; serving as technical editor for two annual guidebooks and, by my final year, I was Second Vice President of the Permian Basin SEPM.

When I was hired at UTPB, the Dean told me not to expect any summer appointments or salary. So I used each summer for research and writing papers for publication. Thanks to a NSF Program Manager who found potential in my research proposal regarding nutrient influences on reefs and carbonate sedimentation, I received the only NSF-funded project at the time at UTPB. That funding was essential to getting search committees to even look at my applications when I began looking for another position a bit closer to the ocean.

I was clearly a “token woman” candidate in some searches; that was obvious when the Search Committee Chair would tell me that “I should be honored that they would even interview someone with my pedigree.” Nonetheless, thanks to my publications and NSF grant, in 1983 I was offered a faculty position in the Department of Marine Science at the University of South Florida.

New Milestones

In December 2019, my last two students officially earned their graduate degrees. They are numbers 74 and 75 in my professorial career.

Graduates over the years.

This milestone comes just over 50 years after earning my B.A. in Zoology from the University of Montana and married a classmate, Robert Muller; and more than 40 years after we earned our PhDs in Oceanography at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. My former graduate students are commonly encountered across Florida, there are several in the DC Beltway and elsewhere in the US, worldwide in places like Jamaica, American Samoa, and Burkina Faso. They work in local to international governmental agencies and NGOs; in the private sector, several with their own businesses; and as academics at levels ranging from middle schools to universities. I have been awarded research medals from two professional organizations and several awards as an educator and graduate mentor, including the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Minority Ph.D. Program’s Mentor of the Year in 2012.

Bloom & Belong

One of the main lessons I have shared with my graduate students over the years came from that simple framed picture in an office in West Texas. “Bloom where you are planted.”

The determination to bloom creates a sense of “belonging.” You must search for opportunities, even modest ones, in the unlikeliest of places; create possibility in those opportunities and be open to new opportunities that may emerge.

Interestingly, when it comes to a sense of “belonging”, in many respects, I had the strongest sense of belonging on that small team of geologists at UTPB, more so than anywhere else in my career.

I am fully aware that the opportunities I found in West Texas provided experiences, insight, and the possibility for the wonderful career that I have enjoyed.

About the Author

Dr. Pamela Hallock Muller is Professor of Geological Oceanography at the University of South Florida. Her research specialties include coral reefs, bioindicators, and ocean acidification. In 2012, Dr. Hallock Muller was elected as a Fellow of the Paleontological Society. In 2013, Dr. Hallock Muller was chosen as one of the Top 25 Women Professors in Florida.

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Dedicated to advancing Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in science. Science, culture, and community in the movement for true diversity in STEM.