Up to the challenge

Jerry Lee

June 1, 2016

Jerry Lee speaks with Thomas K. Holley about his 30-year career and challenges he faced as interim chair at the University of Houston’s petroleum engineering department.


After nearly 30 years with Shell, Thomas K. Holley, left the supermajor to start up a petroleum engineering program in a large university system. Holley’s choice may be perplexing to some, but it’s an unsurprising decision for someone who does not shy away from challenging problems that have a large impact.

After over three decades of absence, the undergraduate petroleum engineering program at University of Houston (UH) returned in 2009. Lacking accreditation, and competing for faculty and space, Holley was recruited in 2010 and tasked with developing a nationally competitive petroleum engineering department.

Holley’s experience with higher education began at University of Missouri-Rolla, where he received a Bachelor of Science in physics and applied mathematics in 1975. This was followed by a master’s and a doctorate in physics from University of Wisconsin in 1976 and 1982, respectively. However, his passion for education began much earlier.

“As with most children, my parents were my strongest influence,” Holley says. “One of my father’s pieces of advice was ‘Never miss an opportunity because of insufficient education.’”

After receiving his doctorate, Holley joined Shell in 1982. Drawn by the challenging nature of geophysics and the impact it has on the industry, he spent the next 28 years as a geophysicist at the supermajor.

“Most of my career was in the research organization,” Holley says. “I was involved with most aspects of seismic exploration, from survey design to data processing to interpretation to software development.”

Holley wrote Shell’s first interactive 3D seismic data survey design software, 3DSIGN, as well as patented a method on how to design and process 3D seismic surveys on land, which led to changes in survey design and processing. In addition, for 10 years, Holley led the development of an in-house seismic data interpretation system, which gave Shell the ability to quickly implement new processing and interpretation methods, a competitive advantage before robust vendor systems existed.

Attracted to the challenge of building a new undergraduate program, Holley retired from Shell on 31 March 2010. The next day he began his mission to start up the UH undergraduate petroleum engineering program.

“I loved my work and the people at Shell; I still do,” Holley says. “I only left because of the exciting challenge to lead the petroleum engineering program (now department) at University of Houston. It is exciting to build a new program and to influence the careers of the next generation of petroleum engineers.”

As the new program director, Holley began his task with clear objectives. First, his goals were to achieve ABET accreditation while growing the undergraduate program. Second, for the master’s program, he set out to double its size, while maintaining quality. Third, he aimed to get approval from the State of Texas to begin a doctorate program. Lastly, for the petroleum program as a whole, he set out to evolve the program into its own department, with world-class faculty and facilities.

Beginning with few students and fewer teachers, Holley filled in the gaps, teaching, and sometimes building, nearly half the classes that were needed to grow and maintain the program.

In six short years, Holley completed all of the objectives he was tasked with: the undergraduate program received ABET accreditation, the master’s program doubled in size, a doctorate program was started, and the program attainted department status. Holley achieved all this while becoming the largest department in the engineering college, boasting over 1000 students.

“I had a huge amount of help from our faculty, staff, dean, and Petroleum Engineering Advisory Board, [and] we have met all the milestones set out when I was hired,” Holley says.

With the startup phase of UH’s petroleum engineering department complete, Holley plans to retire this September.

“It is time for new leadership for the next growth phase,” Holley says. “I expect the next chair of the department of petroleum engineering to propel the department into the top tier of petroleum engineering programs in the US.”

As retirement approaches, Holley remains quiet about his plans. However, one thing is for certain, his plans will continue to focus on challenge and impact.