The Departure of a Legend - Dr. Gary Pope Retires

November 26, 2018

In January of 1977, a young, inspired assistant professor named Gary Pope walked through the doors of the petroleum engineering building. In August of 2019, more than 42 years later, he will retire from UT PGE.

When Pope was hired in the mid-1970’s, the department was a much different place than it is today. The UT PGE building was located about four blocks south on Speedway (next to Gregory gym), and there were only 10 faculty members in the department. Personal computers were several months away from becoming mass marketed and there was essentially no laboratory research in the old PGE building.

Throughout his tenure at UT PGE, Pope's strong leadership elevated the department. He ensured a seamless move into the department's current home in CPE, he became the director of the Center for Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering (CPGE), and helped hire many of the current professors - increasing the faculty roster to 20. 

Pope’s career has been profoundly successful. Despite growing up in a rural area and attending a small high school that taught almost no science or mathematics, Pope has made a global impact through his petroleum engineering teaching, research and leadership roles. Pope has served as a catalyst for the department's growth, excellence and innovation.

The Classroom Man

Hoping for the best, Pope stood in front of his first class of students in January 1977 to teach “Fluid Flow in Permeable Media,” without any prior teaching experience or a faculty orientation.

“It was an intimidating start to my teaching career, but Dr. Ben Caudle (UT PGE professor emeritus) made my first class a little less challenging as he provided me with his class notes and generous advice - his mentorship meant a great deal to me,” said Pope.

pope website

The late Robert Schechter, former UT PGE chair, hired Pope to teach a rigorous thermodynamics course, so that became his specialty as he taught the subject to more than 1,000 undergraduate students during his first few years on the faculty. Early in his career he also began teaching graduate students advanced thermodynamics and phase behavior.

For several decades, Pope continued building upon his teaching craft to become rated one of the best professors by the UT PGE students through teaching evaluations. He knew he would be training the next generation of petroleum engineers, so his teaching was tough, but also well understood and respected by the students in order to ensure they could thrive in industry. He has also mentored more than 200 graduate students and post docs with the same tough love approach.

“Gary taught petroleum engineering to many of today’s oil and gas leaders,” said UT PGE professor Larry W. Lake. “His students now serve in high positions in academia as well as industry – his knowledge and expertise has representation all over the world.” 

The Chair Years

On the same day in 1985, Pope was promoted to full professor and appointed chair of the department. He immediately moved into his upgraded office and began making plans to transition the department into the new CPE building at the end of the year.

Once the faculty and students migrated over to their new home, Pope knew he had a lot of work to do with the department ranking No. 5 in the nation; only about 13 PhD students were enrolled, little research funding existed, and an undergraduate curriculum makeover that was overdue. 

Pope set the hefty goal of having 60 PhD students enrolled in the program. “The faculty were skeptical, but within two years we had 60 PhD students,” said Pope. “With more PhD students and several new faculty members to mentor them, I knew we could increase our research funding – a critical factor in the rankings and in the success of the new faculty.” 

In 1982, Pope helped launch one of the department’s first industry affiliates programs on enhanced oil recovery, which became a best practice in research partnerships. The department’s research funding increased to $5 million during the 1980s. All of those strategic decisions and big ideas led UT PGE to the No. 1 graduate ranking by 1989, a prestigious position maintained almost every year since then.

With the 21st century approaching, Pope knew the outdated undergraduate curriculum needed significant revisions to ensure the department was best preparing its future graduates for industry.

 “I appointed an ad hoc committee and asked them to propose the ideal undergraduate curriculum,” said Pope. “After a faculty vote approved the changes, it was implemented right away. One of the additions was starting a new BS degree in geosystems engineering and hydrogeology – it was one of the first approved interdisciplinary undergraduate degrees at UT Austin.”

Building a Research Empire

After four years as chairman, Pope stepped down from the role and was appointed the director of CPGE – the research center of UT PGE. Over the next 25 years he developed CPGE into one the of the largest research units on campus, with its research funding reaching $23 million in his last year as director.

Promoting the value of interdisciplinary research, Pope worked with faculty from many areas of engineering and science and was especially active in subsurface environmental engineering. During the 1990’s, almost half of the research in the department was supported by federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Energy (DOE). One of Pope’s largest projects at the time was working with the U.S. Air Force and Navy to clean-up superfund sites.

“I worked with environmental engineers and hydrogeologists on about 40 contaminated field sites, mostly contaminated with toxic solvents that leaked into groundwater,” said Pope. “My experience and expertise as a reservoir engineer was exactly what was needed to address some of the complex multiphase flow problems in contaminated aquifers.”

Later Pope became the first director of an energy frontier research center funded by DOE to study geological storage of greenhouse gases in partnership with Sandia National Laboratories.

Pope is most recognized though for his work in reservoir engineering and enhanced oil recovery, especially chemical EOR. He developed a game-changing reservoir simulator called UTCHEM as one of his first research projects.

“The first code was a simple 1D code,” said Pope. “It was radical for its day though because it was a chemical composition model, which was new at that time.”

Over the years, Pope worked with professors Kamy Sepehrnoori and Mojdeh Delshad to make UTCHEM into the 3D code now used worldwide by oil and gas companies as well as universities and federal government agencies.

Mentoring his team of researchers has always been one of the most rewarding aspects of his career. From undergraduate students to graduate students to postdocs, they all played critical roles in producing results that helped the department become a trailblazer in its space.

“Dr. Pope taught me the art and science of research and has always inspired me with his scholarship and professionalism,” said Pope’s former student and Texas A&M University Distinguished Professor Akhil Datta-Gupta. “He is undoubtedly one of the top leaders in the field of EOR. His contributions, to chemical EOR in particular, will have far reaching impact in the oil industry.”

Walking into Pope’s office today, the space is small but it holds tremendous history. Pope has large bookshelves that are lined with all the theses and dissertations of his former students and drawers that are still stacked with grading books from his classes. While his office will eventually be packed up, his legacy will always remain within UT PGE and those he has taught in and out of the classroom. His shared knowledge will continue serving as a beacon of light, guiding the Hildebrand Department for many years to come.