Thomas LaFehr

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Thomas LaFehr
Tom R. LaFehr headshot.jpg
BSc university UC Berkeley
MSc university Colorado School of Mines
PhD university Stanford


Tom R. LaFehr is an American geophysicist noted for his expertise and advancement of the field of geopotential methods in geophysics, particularly in potential fields methods. Dr. LaFehr was awarded the Maurice Ewing Medal in 1997 and the Cecil Green Enterprise Award, with Kwok C. Chan, in 2009.


Cecil Green Enterprise Award 2009

Tom LaFehr and Kwok Chang are receiving the Cecil Green Enterprise Award for their vision, perseverance, and significant personal financial risk in founding LCT in 1987. This company soon evolved into the most recognized service and software company in the domain of potential field data acquisition, processing, interpretation, and integration with seismic. Through various mergers and acquisitions, LCT achieved a dominating position and now acquires approximately 85 percent of marine gravity surveys. The company was sold to Geodynamics in 1995, but LaFehr and Chan bought it back in 1996 when Geodynamics was itself sold. LCT was subsequently sold to the Fugro group in 1998 and continues to function as Fugro-LCT with offices in Houston, Denver, and Singapore and owner/operator of the world’s largest inventory of shipborne gravity meters.

Biography Citation for the Cecil Green Enterprise Award

Contributed by Misac Nabighian

It is a great privilege and honor to write this citation for the Cecil Green Enterprise Award, since I have known both men for many decades. I first met Tom LaFehr when I was an associate editor of Geophysics during his tenure as editor, and I have known Kwok Chan since he was a student at Berkeley.

Born in Los Angeles, California, Tom received his BS in letters and science at University of California, Berkeley in 1958 and a PhD in geophysics at Stanford University in 1964. He then joined GAI-GMX in Houston where he worked closely with L.L Nettleton (another winner of SEG’s Maurice Ewing Medal) and Nelson Steenland (another editor of Geophysics). In a short time, Tom became vice-president and was responsible for the company’s technological developments at a time when computers were new to the industry. Following GMX, Tom became an associate professor at the Colorado School of Mines (1969–1975) and an industry consultant. In 1975 he reduced his teaching commitment to that of adjunct professor and became president and CEO of Edcon.

Tom reports: “I was president of Edcon in the late 1970s, and this was a very busy time in my life. I received a phone call from Frank Morrison, a professor at my alma mater, the University of California, Berkeley, who said, ‘Tom, we have a student finishing his PhD, the best student I have ever had, who you might well want to consider for your company.’ I had not met Kwok Chan but knew of him as a co-author with Bimal Bhattacharya of a seminal paper in the field of gravity and magnetics. However, Professor Morrison went on: ‘The problem is that Kwok is from Hong Kong, for which there is a very long green-card waiting list (meaning that he might not be able to stay and work in the United States), but I have heard that you are adept at obtaining work visas for foreign scientists.’ I did not think we would have such a problem and said, ‘Sure, send him out and we will talk.’”

Tom did hire Kwok, who launched immediately into developing workstation software, but the visa problem remained unsolved. The problem was temporarily fixed by assigning Kwok to their office near London and finally to Calgary where he became a Canadian citizen, all the while continuing to work on software development. Kwok was fiIt is a great privilege and honor to write this citation for the Cecil Green Enterprise Award, since I have known both men for many decades. I first met Tom LaFehr when I was an associate editor of Geophysics during his tenure as editor, and I have known Kwok Chan since he was a student at Berkeley.

Tom decided to return to academia in 1986 and accepted the full-time position as the George R. Brown Professor of Geophysics at CSM. In late 1986 while working in his office in the Cecil and Ida Green Center, Tom met with Kwok, and they subsequently discussed over lunch the deteriorating business climate. As the conversation moved inevitably toward the idea of a new company, Kwok could see that Tom was uncomfortable with a potential conflict of interest, smiled broadly, and said, “Oh, I have already submitted my resignation and am completely free to discuss whatever you want!” Tom was astonished because it was not the best of times to be unemployed. Thus began LCT.

LCT was an amazing success story, especially given the economic climate of those days. Starting very small, it grew to well over 100 people and was involved in data acquisition, processing, interpretation, and software development. Because of market conditions, the company was able to hire outstanding scientists and field engineers and was involved in the digital revolution in marine and airborne gravity, including instrumentation, digital-elevation models and software, and, not least, industry-leading computer software. The company was a pioneer in treating data in very rugged topography and presented several papers to encourage the use of gravity in severe terrain. At the start of LCT, seismic companies acquired most marine gravity data—but then they all decided to sell or outsource that activity. LCT bid against its primary competitors and won in each case, growing its market share to nearly 90%. LCT also joined forces with Geodynamics and created an airborne gravity unit. LCT was sold to Fugro in 1998, and Tom became a Distinguished Senior Scientist at the Colorado School of Mines, a position he continues to hold.

Tom has published numerous seminal papers in Geophysics and other scientific journals and has been a leading spokesman for the gravity and magnetic methods in a large number of continuing education seminars and courses around the globe. He also published his philosophical thoughts in his autobiography, A Geophysicist’s Odyssey. Tom enjoys extensive hobbies involving digital photography, astronomy, and analyses of the stock and options markets. He has served SEG on numerous committees over the years and as Distinguished Lecturer (1970), associate editor (1971–1972), editor (1973–1974), and president (1983–1984). In 1979, he received Honorary Membership and in 1997 was awarded the Maurice Ewing Medal.

Chan, born in Hong Kong, attended UC Berkeley’s Engineering Geoscience Program where he received his BS (1974), MS (1975), and PhD (1978). His thesis adviser was B.K. Bhattacharyya with whom he published a number of important papers.

Kwok left LCT in 2000 and took advantage of an opportunity to invest in LaCoste and Romberg. He moved from Houston to Austin and spent one-and-a-half years at L&R until after the merger with Scintrex. Afterwards, he started writing potential field software as a hobby, and, in 2002, the company GM360 LLC was formed with Kwok as the sole employee. The software modules continued to evolve since then and have now been licensed to many energy companies. Kwok’s main hobby is software coding, which he complements with a passion for cooking. In 1999, following the merger of LCT with Fugro, Tom and Kwok, as graduates of UC Berkeley

Biography Citation for the Maurice Ewing Medal

Contributed by Fred Hilterman

"... to bring about improved technology, we must safeguard the financial viability of geophysics." -Tom LaFehr


More than anything else, this quote exemplifies Dr. Thomas LaFehr's philosophy during his 30 plus years of involvement with exploration geophysics. Without a doubt, he has been the preeminent spokesman, scientist, and promoter for geopotential methods in hydrocarbon exploration as well as in their more conventional uses in mineral exploration. By demonstrating their economic importance and by developing cost-effective methods for acquiring and interpreting data, Tom has kept geopotential methods a viable and valuable tool, especially when integrated with more conventional exploration methods. This comprehensive philosophy was detailed in a series of TLE President's Pages (1983-84) which have become classic articles on integrated exploration. Tom anticipated technology improvements achievable through integration and he set forth to make it a standard for our industry.

Tom's technical contributions span numerous disciplines. In 1965, Tom, along with L. L. Nettleton and Lucien LaCoste, participated in the first sea trials of the LaCoste and Romberg stabilized-platform gravity meters. By incorporating emerging computer technology to reduce the dynamic gravity data, Tom was instrumental in developing the first commercial marine gravity data for exploration. Following up on this newfound source of data, Tom developed interpretational modeling (both 2-D and 3-D) based on gravity and magnetic data. When coupled with seismic information, this modeling yielded geologic information that could not be extracted from conventional seismic alone. Participants in the early SEG Continuing education courses will remember Tom's lucid discussions and examples from these early field studies which demonstrated this very point. The spirit of these early innovations continued when in 1991 Tom made a strategic decision to develop an advanced GPS-based dynamic air-borne gravity system, thus reducing the need for specially designed aircraft. Today many of our industry standards involving dynamic gravity-data reduction, improved terrain correction methods, and integrated interpretation were pioneered by Tom LaFehr.

Tom's endeavors were not limited to sea and air but also included the subsurface. During the 1970s, he pioneered the development and application of the borehole gravity meter (BHGM). This work led to Tom's publication which related the theoretical "Poisson's jump" and actual changes in bulk density to practical BHGM measurements.


Early Years and Education

His educational background/experience is not unexpected for the scientist explorationist he has become. Tom obtained an A.B. from the University of California- Berkeley, an M.Sc. from Colorado School of Mines, and a Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1964. While at Mines, Tom received two SEG scholarships and worked for the USGS.

Professional Career

After receiving his doctorate, Tom joined Gravity Meter Exploration Company.

It was in 1969, when Tom accepted an associate professorship at Mines, that began to appreciate the breadth of Tom's expertise. Being a "seismic" student, was amazed at Tom's uncanny ability to analyze the practical applications and limitations of the various disciplines of research that were being conducted at Mines. Shortly after his arrival, Tom co-founded Edcon Inc., a consulting firm involved with acquiring and interpreting gravity data. It was not surprising that in 1975 with the rapid growth and the introduction of electrical prospecting and borehole gravity at Edcon that Tom assumed the full-time position of president. In 1982, Tom returned and later accepted the George Brown Professorship Chair of Geophysics. In 1987, Tom and K. C. Chan founded LCT. Through various acquisitions and mergers, LCT grew to where it now acquires approximately 85 percent of marine gravity surveys. Tom is currently chairman emeritus of the board of LCT. From 1995 to 1996, Tom was also chairman of the board of Geodynamics, an aerospace and defense contracting company.

SEG has benefited for many years from Tom's volunteer work. His efforts include Distinguished Lecturer 1970), GEOPHYSICS Associate Editor (1970- 71) and Editor (1972-73), Continuing Education instructor (1981-1987), President (1983- 84), first Chairman of TLE's Editorial Board, Chairman of SEG Scholarship Committee (1985), and Chairman of SEG International Affairs Committee (1986).

Tom was also an instructor for AAPG and other continuing education courses. His popularity as a lecturer is attested to by the fact that SEG honored Tom with three Best Presentation Awards. His ability to emphasize points with a dry sense of humor left an indelible mark on many of us. One of his lecture comments that favor (paraphrased by me) is: "Don't constrain an interpretation with the mathematical Principle of Least Squares where the geological Principle of Least Astonishment applies." He also received SEG Honorary Membership in 1979 and was inducted into the Russian Academy of Science in 1997.

Be it Tom in his role as university professor, entrepreneur, businessman, or scientist, you will always find an unassuming friend. We honor him for being a colleague to all and for his major contributions to the advancement of geophysics. It is appropriate that SEG should award Dr. Thomas LaFehr with its highest recognition--the Maurice Ewing Medal.

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