2016 Awards – John Underhill, Lyell Medallist

John UnderhillThis year’s Lyell Medal is awarded to Professor John Underhill, Shell Professor of Exploration Geoscience at Heriot-Watt University.

Professor Underhill researches the sedimentology, structural geology and stratigraphy of prospective basins, and is currently focusing on projects relating to the integration of subsurface data with field exposures.

‘New techniques make it possible to place observations that can be made in the field within their larger generic context’ he says. ‘They range from those which enable us to image, interpret and understand ancient tectonic and sedimentological processes like structural inversion, fault scarp degradation and buried landscapes.

‘Being able to describe such things is one thing, but to be able to determine dates, rates, sizes and dimensions affords the opportunity to quantify ancient processes too.

‘Some ongoing studies are focusing upon a forensic mapping of the subsurface, which not only contributes to conventional subsurface exploration but also allowed carbon storage opportunities to be assessed, and the risks of leakage to be evaluated.’

Of his inspiration to study geology, he says ‘I have had a long standing interest in maps and the interpretation thereof. My parents bought me a geological map of the Isle of Wight when I was twelve, and I set off for a day’s exploring on the island from my home on Portsdown Hill.


Yaverland Beach and Culver Down on the Isle of Wight.

‘Walking from Sandown to Brading via the Chalk cliffs of Culver Down and seeing the vertical beds of Whitecliff Bay made me realise that the bedrock geology controlled the landscape, and helped explain what underpinned the topography and contours on maps. I was hooked, and have remained in awe of earth processes ever since.

Of being a geoscientist, he says ‘I like the variety, the opportunity it presents to see earth processes in action or ancient ones preserved, and see the impact that understanding them has on society.

‘I also appreciate having the chance to have a positive influence on the training of the next generation, through leading initiatives like the Natural Environment Research Council(NERC)’s Centre for Doctoral Training in Oil and Gas, something that stresses a holistic approach to the energy challenge, and the environmental responsibility one has to protect the planet whilst seeking the energy needed to fuel society in a responsible way.’

Lyell Medal obverseProfessor Underhill received our 2016 Lyell Medal at President’s Day on 8 June. On receiving the award, he expresses ‘a mixture of surprise and pleasure. It is a great honour to be recognised by the Society in this way.’

To those consider a career in geoscience, he says ‘if you are enthused by the subject of geology, don’t be dissuaded or distracted by others – follow your instinct and study and work in the field. You will never regret it, and will have a fulfilling career in a subject which is at the core of the ongoing environmental and energy challenge.’

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