Scott Smithson

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Scott Smithson
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SEG Outstanding Educator Award 2017

Scott Smithson is well known in the SEG education and research communities. He is being recognized with the SEG Outstanding Educator Award for his many contributions to excellence in geophysical and geologic research and education during a long and distinguished career in both academia and industry spanning more than 50 years.

Biography Citation for SEG Outstanding Educator Award 2017 [1]

by Roy A. Johnson

The essence of being a great educator is not in imparting important facts to one’s students, but rather in freeing their imaginations so they can discover for themselves what is important. Scott Smithson has an inherent talent for inspiring students and associates that defies easy characterization, but it is readily apparent from the success of his many students and the close bonds he has developed with and among them that have lasted for decades.

With the active engagement of his students, Scott has had a profound effect on shaping scientific investigations of the earth’s continental crust. Scott initiated the industry-supported University of Wyoming (UW) Volcanics Project, based on innovative use of vertical seismic profiles, to obtain a better understanding of wave propagation through volcanic rocks, developing approaches that he also applied to crustal ref lection seismology. His tudent-oriented, hands-on approach in data acquisition, processing, and interpretation to answering significant scientific questions opened many opportunities for his students in the exploration industry and academia. After graduating in 1954 with a degree in geological engineering from the University of Oklahoma, Scott worked as a seismologist for Shell Oil in the Texas Panhandle and also served in the U.S. Army, working on communications systems for the Pentagon.

Beginning in 1957, while pursuing an MS degree at UW, Scott worked nights for The Geotechnical Corp., locating nuclear bomb tests and earthquakes for the U.S. Air Force. In 1959, Scott went to Norway to conduct research for his PhD at the University of Oslo, where he was awarded a Vetlesen postdoctoral position from 1963 to 1964. In 1964, Scott moved back to Laramie to start his academic career as the only geophysicist at UW.

In the early days, Scott and his students used donated analog recording systems from Shell and Amoco, but in 1972, Exxon donated a 24-channel digital recording system that led Scott and the first UW student majoring in the geophysics option, Robert Wyckoff, to run probably the world’s only two-man seismic crew, “Bankrupt Exploration,” with Bob shooting, Scott recording, and both working as “ juggies.” After Bob graduated and went to work for Conoco (recently retiring as director of worldwide geophysical operations), he helped arrange the donation of four vibroseis trucks and two MDS-10 recording systems. Scott’s crustal seismology program blossomed from that point on. He developed a fellowship among his many students, spanning all generations, that is truly remarkable. Early on, Scott’s students dubbed themselves “Smithson’s Commandos” — a moniker developed out of a sense of pride for the good work they were able to accomplish under very difficult conditions and, particularly, a sense that anything was possible with perseverance and teamwork.

For more than four decades at UW, Scott mentored at least 92 students of his own (10 BS, 59 MS, 23 PhD) and six postdocs and worked with many other students in the United States and in Eastern and Western Europe. Of his students, 60 to 70, including seven PhDs, went into the petroleum industry, around 11 went into mining and environmental fields, and 16 went on to faculty positions at major universities around the world. As Kate Miller, provost and vice president for academic affairs at UW noted in her nominating letter, “Few professors can claim to have made such major contributions to both industry and the academic workforce over their careers.” But it isn’t just the numbers that matter, it is what Scott’s influence on all of us has meant to our careers and lives and how we carry his impact forward. Ultimately, this is why Scott is being recognized with the SEG Outstanding Educator Award.


  1. (2017). ”Honors and Awards.” The Leading Edge, 36(10), 806–819.