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The annual Student Paper Contest went virtual this year, another milestone in its long history of helping petroleum engineering students develop much-needed skills. | Image: Getty Images

For nearly five decades, the Student Paper Contest held by the Harold Vance Department of Petroleum Engineering at Texas A&M University has provided a critical professional development opportunity for junior, senior, master’s and doctoral students in the department. This year was no exception, even though the local contest was held virtually for the first time.

“Over the years, we’ve gone from transparencies on an overhead projector to PowerPoint presentations on a screen to modern teleconferencing technology,” said Dr. Duane McVay, director of the contest. “However, our mission remains the same.”

The contest’s objective is to help students develop proficiency in presenting technical papers or research projects, both orally and visually, before a panel of experts. Traditionally, the contest takes place on two concurrent Saturdays: the last Saturday in January for the preliminaries and the first Saturday in February for the run-offs. Because of the new virtual format needed to align with pandemic restrictions, preparations for this year’s contest began in September 2020. Several tests, evaluations and small mock sessions were held to ensure the students could gain as much feedback and interaction as possible with judges, valuable assets of the in-person contests.

On Jan. 30, the contest went live with 16 Zoom breakout rooms simultaneously airing six junior sections, six senior sections, two master’s sections and two doctoral sections. Throughout the day, faculty moderators for each section guided their allotment of the 217 participating students through 15-minute presentation intervals and 5-minute question-and-answer sessions in front of volunteer industry judges. Competition coordinators quickly overcame the few technical difficulties that occurred.

“The mechanics of student presentations using Zoom were quite satisfactory,” said emeritus contest director Dr. W. John Lee. “The students demonstrated flexibility in dealing with inevitable technical glitches. No one lost their poise or cool.”

A&M graduates stand out in the industry compared to graduates from other colleges when making professional presentations.

William D. (Bill) Von Gonten Jr. '87

On Feb. 6, the top students from each section competed again in run-offs where the final first-, second- and third-place division winners were determined. Dedicated staff were on hand to help with technical issues on both days.

The first- and second-place winners from the senior, master’s and doctoral divisions will advance to the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) Gulf Coast North America Regional competition, to be held later this spring.

Former students and other personnel from companies hiring petroleum engineers generously fund the contest and volunteer annually to judge, with 69 attending this year to critique the students' performance. William D. (Bill) Von Gonten Jr. '87 is an excellent example of this hands-on dedication. He founded and runs several companies, and donates his academic support with scholarships and faculty fellowships, but took time out of his weekend to judge the senior run-off division. 

“Due to dedication and training for the Student Paper Contest, A&M graduates stand out in the industry compared to graduates from other colleges when making professional presentations," Von Gonten told the contestants at the end of the run-offs. "Our students take the writing contest very seriously, which is evident in their challenging research and topics. It was a proud moment for me as a young student to win this contest and advance to the international competition. Winning the undergraduate division in the SPE International Student Paper Contest was an accomplishment that still drives me to strive for excellence. The achievement is still displayed in my office.”

Recent participants also consider the event a key component in preparing to be part of the oil and gas industry.

“The contest is a valuable tool,” said Gabrielle Joubran ’20. “It allows you to practice public speaking and present over a technical topic. These experiences have helped me become more confident when I am speaking in front of others and help me better express my ideas in a work setting.”

There are 14 regional student paper contests held globally and coordinated by SPE. Undergraduate, master’s and doctoral students compete against peers from their region for the opportunity to move on to the SPE International Student Paper Contest, scheduled to take place during the SPE Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition this fall. Texas A&M petroleum engineering students have an outstanding record of placing and winning in both the regional and international contests, thanks in part to their experiences at the local level.

“Participating in the competition has definitely been a rewarding experience,” said Hussain AlBahrani ’20, who took second place in the doctoral division at the 2020 SPE International Student Paper Contest. “Not only was I provided with an opportunity to present and validate the new ideas of my research to different panels of industry experts, but I was also able to test my performance under pressure.”

2021 Division winners

  • Juniors: first - Victoria Clark; second - Katelynn Kinslow; third - William Bridges
  • Seniors: first - Anthony Small; second - Carli Siller; third - Dean Murphy
  • Master’s: first - Oluwatobiloba Adebisi; second - Keyla Gonzalez; third - Jincheng Li
  • Doctoral: first - Debora Martogi; second - I. Wayan Rakanada Saputra; third - Yongzan Liu