New Director Named to Lead College's Petroleum Engineering Program


Erin D. McKenzie

A longtime Shell researcher has been appointed to lead the University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering's petroleum engineering program in training the next generation technical workforce.

Thomas K. Holley, a senior staff geophysicist with the global energy and petrochemical company, will begin work at UH April 1. He will succeed Ray Flumerfelt who has served as director of the program since fall 2008.

“There is a significant need for a strong petroleum engineering program in the Greater Houston region,” said Joseph W. Tedesco, Elizabeth D. Rockwell Chair and dean. “Tom Holley’s addition to the college is just the beginning of what we hope will be rapid growth for this program.”

Already offering a master’s degree in petroleum engineering, the longstanding program introduced a new undergraduate degree option last year. The hope is that the degrees will not only work to fill gaps in the workforce created by retiring baby boomers, but also provide graduates with the skills necessary to respond to the changing needs of the industry.

Petroleum engineers work with geologists to search the world for reservoirs containing oil or natural gas and later designing methods and equipment to effectively extract these resources.

Holley has worked with Shell to do just this. For more than two decades, he has provided employees with the knowledge needed to better serve the company as the geoscience training coordinator for Shell U.S. Most recently, he led a research team for Shell that produces a software program allowing geophysicists the ability to better interpret pictures of the Earth to find rocks that may contain oil and gas. It is currently one of two primary software tools used to deploy geoscience research globally within Shell.

“Tom Holley is highly respected in the field,” said Ramanan Krishnamoorti, chair of the college’s department of chemical and biomolecular engineering where the program is housed. “He will provide the intellectual leadership for this program to attract the highest quality students and faculty and yet keep the program relevant to the changing needs of the industry, and by his background, provide a link with the Geoscience department—a critical feature that distinguishes the new generation curriculum developed for the undergraduate petroleum engineering program.”

Holley will be focused, once he arrives, on growing enrollment in the undergraduate program. One of few like it across the country, it saw its first students last semester.

It’s unique curriculum—melding geosciences with the technical aspects of petroleum engineering and instruction in project management and entrepreneurship—is designed to prepare new graduates to extract natural resources from harder to find places.

Already used extensively to develop this undergraduate degree’s core curriculum, Holley will again rely on industry professionals to transform the program into the college’s seventh department.

Used to teach part-time in the program’s master’s degree curriculum, industry professionals will bring their real-world experience to more classrooms as well as prepare students for internships, and upon graduation, careers with their companies. Holley will also add six faculty members during the course of the next five years. These individuals, he said, will help to establish a doctoral degree option that would partner UH faculty and graduate students with industry leaders in research.

“This is the center of the petroleum business worldwide,” said Holley. “This makes our program a really unique situation for students. It offers an opportunity for students to connect to the companies that are here not only through research and internships, but in the classroom as well.”

Slated to occupy space in the University of Houston Energy Research Park, the program is being aided by the Society of Petroleum Engineers Gulf Coast Section who earlier this year established a professorship. This is in addition to $1.6 million given by two Fortune 500 oil companies—Devon Energy Corp. and Marathon Oil Corp.—to assist with costs associated with the new undergraduate degree.

To learn more about what the program can offer, visit

Thomas K. Holley at a Glance
Education Holley earned his bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics from the Missouri University of Science and Technology and both his master’s and Ph.D. in physics from the University of Wisconsin in 1975, 1976 and 1982, respectively.
Career Work during his 28-year career with Shell he has produced numerous Shell papers, a patent and curriculum for Shell training courses.
Awards Several Shell Special Recognition Awards and the Distinguished Alumnus Award from the University of Wisconsin Physics Department.
Professional Affiliations Society of Exploration Geophysicists, European Associations of Geoscientists and Engineers, American Physical Society, Texas Professional Geoscientist, American Geophysical Union and Forum for Industrial and Applied Physics.



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