Alumnus Pushes Tech to its Limits in Search for Energy

By Haywood McNeill  |  October 19, 2021

After a childhood often spent looking at the past, UT Dallas alumnus John Thurmond BA’97, PhD’06 now spends much of his time gazing into the future.

Thurmond is a geoscientist that serves as an advisor on emerging technology at Hess Corporation, an independent energy company in Houston.

“I am effectively a technology scout,” Thurmond said. “I keep an eye on the technology landscape in oil and gas to find new technologies that are a good fit for our business needs. I set up pilots and encourage our organization to step out into the unknown and try new things that we think will add value.”

As an example, Hess was interested in building autonomous oil fields, “so our group works with robotics and drones as enabling technologies,” Thurmond said.

His route to UT Dallas and to studying geosciences was complex.

“What originally attracted me to UTD was the Superconducting Super Collider project,” Thurmond said. “It was an exciting thing to potentially be involved with in the early ’90s. UTD was planning to have a presence in that project. My intention was to become a physics major, and I thought UTD was the place to be connected to that particular bit of infrastructure that was under construction but ultimately didn’t get built,” Thurmond said.

Congress began appropriating billions of dollars to build the collider in 1988 near Waxahachie – 30 miles south of UT Dallas – and had spent $2 billion on its early construction. But Congress rejected further funding in October 1993.

“I ended up starting as a chemistry major, but then I went through a crisis of ‘What do I really want to do with my life?’ And I sought help from advisors at UT Dallas,” Thurmond said.

John Thurmond BA’97, PhD’06

Through career counseling at UT Dallas, Thurmond took a series of personality tests to determine what disciplines suited him best. His matches included college professor, geographer and various careers in the natural sciences and arts.

“That prompted me to start getting involved with the geosciences department, and I changed my major to geosciences in 1994,” Thurmond said. “I soon realized I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in a lab or working with chemicals. That didn’t really light my fire.”

Thurmond’s father was a professor of paleontology, which helped him develop an understanding of geology.

“I’d been going on field trips since the time I could walk,” Thurmond said. “I knew very much what I was getting into, but like many stubborn teenagers, the very last thing I wanted to do when I set off on my own course was repeat what either of my parents did. But I still ended up in the geosciences, which ended up being a great choice for me.”

Thurmond also made another seismic discovery while studying geology: He met his wife, Allie. The two met in sedimentology class Thurmond’s junior year and ended up in the same student group in geosciences. Before receiving their doctorates in geoscience, the couple landed jobs in Norway.

“Allie, she’s a superhero,” Thurmond said. “She was finishing her PhD with a toddler at home and pregnant with our daughter, all while living in a country we were not familiar with. However, the job ended up being a great choice, and allowed me to be at the boundary of geology and computing.”  

The couple lived in Bergen, Norway, one of the rainiest cities in Europe. Thurmond continued working for the Norwegian company for 16 years before joining Hess in 2020. After moving back to Texas, the couple has been able to find their own UT Dallas alumni community in Houston.

“We have something called ‘Front-yard Fridays,’ when everyone in the neighborhood gathers in someone’s driveway for cold drinks, snacks, games and activities, and that’s how I discovered that our next-door neighbors both have degrees from UTD,” Thurmond said. “Between the two houses, we have seven degrees from UTD, and the son of the neighbor across the street is also attending UTD. It’s a small corner of Houston here, but there’s a lot of UTD representation.”

As one of the first group of students to live on campus, Thurmond has a unique perspective on the growth he’s seen at UT Dallas.  

“There was the Founders Building and Berkner Hall, and when you exited Berkner there were open fields on both sides,” Thurmond said.

As a freshman in 1993, Thurmond was awarded a full scholarship through the University’s National Merit Scholarship Program, which not only covered the cost of tuition and books, but also included a stipend and an on-campus apartment. At the time, only the Waterview Apartments, Phases One and Two, existed.

“They were about to break ground on Phase Three my freshman year. UTD really was a commuter school at the time,” Thurmond added.

Today the campus features some 30-plus buildings, not to mention its six residence halls.

“The growth of campus has been stunning,” he said. “Allie and I have two kids, a son, Jack, who is a junior in high school, and Mia, who is a sophomore. We’re currently doing college campus tours with both kids to help them pick where they want to go, and UTD will certainly be on the list.”

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