Dr. Carlos A. Dengo has a Ph.D. in Geology from Texas A&M University. Upon graduation he joined Exxon Production Research Company, focusing on structural geology research and technology applications early in his career. Carlos retired from ExxonMobil in 2012 as the geoscience vice president for ExxonMobil Upstream Research Company. Beginning in 2014 Carlos accepted the position as Director of the Berg‐Hughes Center for Petroleum and Sedimentary Systems at Texas A&M University. Carlos is the recipient of the Winchell Distinguished Alumni Award from the Department of Earth Sciences at Syracuse University and the best paper award from the U.S. National Rock Mechanics Committee and has served on several academic, government and professional society advisory boards.
What is your earliest memory of wanting to be a scientist?
I grew up in a country with active volcanoes and frequent earthquakes so geology impacted our daily lives in many ways. My Father was a geologist and always found creative and fun ways for me to learn Earth sciences. In the 6th grade I had to do a science project and he suggested I read a book entitled Continental Drift, by K. Runcorn (published in 1962 and ahead of the full acceptance of plate tectonic theory). When I began to realize that continental plates move and that I was experiencing those processes almost daily, I was hooked!
When you were a child, what did you think you’d be doing as an adult?
I always wanted to predict a major earthquake and I focused my graduate research on studies of rock friction and fault zone deformation mechanics. Although my career took me in a different direction and I have been out of that field of research for a long time, the dream still lives that someday we will be able to predict catastrophic earthquakes.
What did you like about working in industry?
I worked for a major international company that gave me a lifetime opportunity to learn global geology and access to amazing data sets and technology. I worked with people from many different cultures and at the end of the day it comes down to the people you work with. I had the privilege to work with and learn from an outstanding group of geoscientists, engineers and many others. In a sense I was lucky that my hobby was also my work.
What do you like now about working in Academia?
It continues to be about the people I work with and in the case of academia there is a lot of enjoyment in working with students. Academia is not all about research. It’s also about helping the next generation be prepared to succeed and be able to think critically. My experiences can help students understand the complexity and challenges of the world in which they will work and will need to lead.
When you encounter frustrating situations or dead-ends, what keeps you going?
Success depends on many factors that are not always in our control. I have overcome adverse situations by having passion for what I do but more importantly the conviction to see it through. It’s always necessary to have a clear line of sight and focus on the outcome you hope for. But one has to be realistic, always consider uncertainty and evaluate outcomes that are within a range of scenarios that are acceptable. It’s when the results are outside of that range that you understand you were doing something wrong to start with. Learn from it and move on.
What’s the strangest place/situation you’ve been?
Having worked in very challenging environments and operational situations around the world, none compares to working at 14,000 ft. above sea level in the Altiplano of Bolivia. It is desolate and surreal, challenging in its geologic complexity and inspiring in its enormous beauty.
How have your friends/relatives who are not scientists reacted to your career/research?
Mostly with a lot of interest and sometimes with awe. People are fascinated when you can explain to them something about geology that translates to an experience they have had. Recently, a friend traveled to Yellowstone Park. Ahead of his trip I showed him the geologic map of Wyoming, explained that he was going to visit the largest volcanic edifice on the planet and should it ever erupt in his lifetime what the consequences might be. He came back from his trip somewhat humbled and with a greater appreciation of the scale and impact of geologic processes.
What advice do you have for students considering a career in the Earth and space sciences?
Earth and space sciences are playing an increasingly important role in solving some of society’s greatest challenges, and so there will always be exciting opportunities. We all have a heightened awareness that Earth shapes life and life shapes Earth. What could be more exciting than contributing to that body of knowledge and to do so in a way that can benefit society? I always tell students to follow their passion in life and in doing so, be the best they can be. We all benefited from the contributions and the philanthropy of others that preceded us. Students need to learn to pay forward, and we all need to contribute to ensure future generations have the opportunities we have had. Students need to have that mindset.