Geology professor Scott Ritter knows the secret of how best to prepare students for careers in petroleum geology: take a trip to the Bahamas.
Every two to three years, Ritter and faculty associates take a group of geology students on a spring field trip to the Bahamas to study limestone depositional environments and their petroleum potential.
Ritter and his students examine sedimentary patterns and processes in a wide range of modern limestone-producing environments that include tidal flats, reefs, ooid sand shoals, and restricted marine lagoons. Carbonate rocks deposited in these environments are common in ancient limestone formations around the world and they contain large quantities of oil and natural gas.
The trip also permits the students to observe modern sedimentary rocks and compare them with those seen in 125,000 year old limestones exposed in roadcuts and sinkholes on North Andros Island, the group's base of operation.
Ritter learned the importance of expanding students' horizons and observing rocks as they form from his former professor, W. Kenneth Hamblin.
"He really saw the value of taking students to places where processes were happening," Ritter explained.
In his later years, Hamblin founded the Hamblin Mentored Field Trip Fund, which provides geology students with opportunities to travel across the world to study geology in all types of environments.
Studying geology in an environment wholly different from Utah's dry desert gives students a broader understanding of worldwide geology. Unlike the 100 million year old rock formations in Utah, many of the limestone formations in the Bahamas are only tens of thousands of years old. Or in the case of modern settings, only a few days or weeks old.
"It's kind of cool because we can go on the island in the Bahamas, look at 125,000 year old limestone, and then we can go to a place...where that rock is now forming," Ritter said.
Ritter helps his students utilize the knowledge they obtain in the Bahamas to understand geological formations closer to home. For example, Squaw Peak situated just east of BYU campus is also a limestone formation. However, it was formed hundreds of millions of years ago when Utah was covered with shallow marine waters.
"We can go up on the hillside here and use what we're learning in the Bahamas and other modern settings to interpret what was happening here [in Utah] 300 million years ago," Ritter said.
While understanding the history of an area is important, the hydrocarbon research that Ritter and his students conduct in the Bahamas can have a direct influence on modern society.
"About half of the world's petroleum comes out of limestone," Ritter said. "The electricity we have here, the heating we have here is because somewhere natural gas or coal has been burned to generate electricity...so we can just flip on the switch. Oil provides the raw materials for gasoline that fuels cars. Without hydrocarbon exploration, we're in trouble."
Many BYU geology students find jobs in the petroleum industry and hydrocarbon exploration after graduating. Ritter understands the importance of providing students with first-hand experiences so they can be competitive job candidates.
"We're just trying to give them the skills so they can compete with students from the nation's finest universities and then become the most successful and best employees possible," Ritter said.
Even though he works hard to help his students find stable jobs, Ritter's greatest fulfillment comes from increasing his students' awareness of the world around them.
"I think concepts in geology really enrich a student's perception of the world in which they live," Ritter said. "It's like putting on a pair of glasses that clarifies the workings of our home planet both now and in the geologic past."