Retiring Ertekin’s lifelong mission was helping students succeed

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Imagine a giant jigsaw puzzle, a box brimming with 50,000 pieces. Solving this puzzle is a daunting task, but it’s a well-defined problem.

Now, imagine that same puzzle, as Turgay Ertekin, professor of petroleum and natural gas engineering (PNGE), often asks his students to do, with 10, 100, maybe 10,000 pieces missing.

“Now the problem becomes much more challenging. It’s an ill-defined problem,” Ertekin said. You first need to identify which pieces are missing and then you have to generate those pieces to complete the puzzle. In petroleum engineering, we find ourselves in a sea of uncertainties.”

Ertekin said engineering alone won’t solve ill-defined problems.

“Scientists need to bring all of their creativity to convert an ill-defined problem to a well-defined problem,” Ertekin said. “The ability to do this step is what I have always tried to equip my students with. The solution really depends on both their critical understanding and creativity.”

Solving the unknowns is something that Ertekin knows well. He’s been doing that for more than four decades at Penn State as a prolific researcher and professor. Although he’s officially retiring on June 30, he plans to continue to mentor students and finish writing two textbooks.

It’s fitting that he became an expert in uncertainty after leaving city life in Turkey, days after marrying his wife, Filiz, unsure of what a new life in Happy Valley might bring.

It almost didn’t happen. Twice.

After originally being accepted to the Colorado School of Mines to pursue his master’s degree, Ertekin set course for the U.S., when a three-day layover in France — where he longed for his home and family — forced him to reconsider.

“At Paris Orly Airport, I envied those who were happily working behind the counters as I knew that they would go back to their homes at the end of the day to be together with their loved ones,” said Ertekin.

So Ertekin returned home and became an instructor at Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey, where he began his doctoral studies.

Still wanting to study in the U.S., he transferred to Stanford. Again, homesickness got the best of him and he returned home, this time just days into his studies.

Soon the lure of working at Penn State, a leader in petroleum research, became too strong. In 1975, he arrived at University Park to continue his quest for a doctoral degree under the guidance of a prominent educator and scientist, S.M. Farouq Ali, promising his wife they would return to Turkey after earning his doctorate.

But the couple took root in the region, and after completing his doctorate Ertekin accepted an assistant professor position in 1978.

“The community here really provided a wonderful place for us to raise our family,” Ertekin said. “This small town, this slow pace, was at first kind of foreign to us. Then, all of a sudden, those qualities became extremely important and relevant. It’s a wonderful place to live.”

His wife earned a master’s degree in instruction and curriculum and early childhood development and their two children obtained undergraduate degrees in engineering fields.

Growing as a teacher

Early on, Ertekin felt the pressure, wondering if he would become a good teacher and researcher. He said that the pressure and drive to lead his students in the learning process allowed him to grow and succeed.

“I wanted to stretch their thinking, their analytical power,” Ertekin said. “Maybe I’m known as a demanding person but I was also demanding of myself. Most of the time the students enjoyed that push. I hope to be remembered as someone who tried to teach them to not follow the worn path, but to create their own. If I have accomplished this, they will leave their own tracks.”

Ertekin, who often refers to his students as friends, said he most enjoys watching as the learning process unfolds and solutions are found.

“For me, the most important time is when I see a student with this light in their eyes. ‘Now I see it. I’ve got it,’ they say. Then I say, ‘it looks like we’ve accomplished something here.’ I always try to look for that light. That’s what drives me to succeed,” Ertekin said.

Making ‘friends’

Dave Stover, chairman, president and CEO of Noble Energy, calls Ertekin “a tremendous ambassador for Penn State and the industry.” Stover, a 1979 alum, remembers Ertekin from his undergraduate days at Penn State and maintains a relationship with the Ertekins.

“Over the years he has never changed, the easygoing, soft-spoken nature, the interest in you as a person, and the ability to leave a mark without demanding attention,” Stover said. “The Ertekins go out of their way to make you feel like part of their family by showing a genuine interest in everything you do. I consider Turgay a true friend and wish him and Filiz unlimited enjoyment in this next phase of their life together.”

Martin Craighead, chairman and CEO of Baker Hughes, echoes that sentiment.

“I have known Dr. Ertekin since my days as an engineering student at Penn State when he was assistant professor of petroleum and natural gas engineering. He has enriched so many lives, including mine,” Craighead said. “I am extremely fortunate to have had Dr. Ertekin as my professor, my mentor, and most importantly, my friend, for all of these years. His passion and knowledge for reservoir modeling and reservoir engineering helped lay the foundation for my future career, and his wisdom and guidance helped me build on that foundation. I congratulate him on his well-deserved retirement and wish him the best in his next chapter.”

Adam Larson, a junior majoring in petroleum and natural gas engineering, interacts with numerous industry professionals as president of the Society of Petroleum Engineers at Penn State and he said the conversations always start with Ertekin.

“He’s a legend in this industry and I am honored and humbled to know him,” said Larson. “Ertekin will leave many fond memories in the Hosler Building. For his continuous support within our program and willingness to help every student he interacts with, on behalf of the entire PNGE student body, we thank him.”

A prolific researcher

Ertekin said U.S. petroleum research is the locomotive that drives the industry globally and being a part of that process has allowed him to join the ranks of international experts in the field.

“To be pulled by that engine together with so many individuals who are extremely capable and talented — to be in that environment — provides you with so many new avenues, lines of thinking, and opportunities to see the applications of certain things you are researching,” Ertekin said.

Ertekin, head of the John and Willie Leone Family Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering and George E. Trimble Chair in Earth and Mineral Sciences, is an expert in the development and application of fluid flow models in porous media. He’s given more than 300 invited lectures, paper presentations and seminars worldwide, and is the author of more than 250 publications, including four books.

"Great researchers make great teachers, and great teachers make great researchers; I am not claiming that I have conquered it, but in my mind, it is very important to catch that symbiotic relationship between research and teaching," he said.

He’s always found ways to bring research into the classroom and to involve his students in research. He’s also helped almost 200 students earn their master’s and doctoral degrees under his tutelage.

“Students make it very colorful, very dynamic," Ertekin said. "They create a unique climate where one can always think ‘I can and maybe I should try to achieve more for these young minds, for these individuals.’”

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Last Updated June 26, 2017