Usua Amanam: High energy on and off the field

USUA AMANAM is one of only a dozen or so undergraduates majoring in Energy Resources Engineering, a department in the School of Earth Sciences that examines energy production and conservation.

The Stanford senior whose interception with two minutes left in the 2013 Rose Bowl Game sealed Stanford’s 20-14 victory over Wisconsin earned hardware as the Defensive Player of the game. But he not only knows how to read a quarterback’s eyes, he knows how to infer the makeup of the subsurface by drilling an exploration well.

Amanam, whose first name is pronounced OOS wah, has a passion for football, and he dreams of playing in the NFL. “I’d love to make millions of dollars running around with a football in my hands,” he laughed.

But he’s been one of the smallest players on every one of his teams since the fourth grade, and at 5’10′ and 176 pounds, he’s a realist.

“There’s a low probability that an NFL career is going to happen for most college football players,” he said. “That’s the reason I chose Stanford. If the football route doesn’t work out, I’ll have a Stanford degree to fall back on.”

Amanam’s sheepskin from ERE will leave him well positioned for a job in the oil and gas industry, which doesn’t typically draw much interest from undergraduates, particularly ones with their eyes on a career in professional football. How is it that it calls to Amanam?

“My family is originally from Nigeria,” explained Amanam, who said his interest in oil was piqued by a 2007 article in National Geographic called “Curse of the Black Gold.”

“Oil was found in Nigeria in the late 1950s and the 1960s,” Amanam said, “and it was a way for a developing country like Nigeria to become truly relevant in the world today. The National Geographic writer basically detailed what Nigeria has gone through in terms of the oil industry and how it has caused more trouble and more strife than the good it was supposed to. Reading that article and understanding how much a properly working petroleum industry could really jump-start a country economically and socially is what attracted me to ERE.”

RICHARD NEVLE, director of undergraduate programs for the School of Earth Sciences, has known Amanam since both were at Bellarmine Prep in San Jose – Nevle as a science teacher and Amanam as an honors student.

“Usua was a rock star as a high school football player, a superstar,” Nevle said. “He has legs that are steel springs and he’s a very gifted sprinter.”

Stanford’s head football coach, David Shaw, was the team’s offensive coordinator when the Cardinal recruited Amanam.

“We get lots of mail and email about high school players, but we got a lot about Usua in particular,” Shaw said. “That he was bright and engaging as a student and that he was a dynamic football player as well. Everyone said he was the kind of kid who should go to Stanford.”

ROLAND HORNE, professor of energy resources engineering, says that after a sharp drop in oil prices in the mid-1980s and the massive Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound in 1989, undergraduate interest in petroleum engineering evaporated. Over one 10-year stretch, Stanford did not award a single bachelor’s degree in petroleum engineering.

In 2006, the School of Earth Sciences changed the name of its Department of Petroleum Engineering to Energy Resources Engineering, reflecting its expansion into research and embracing additional forms of energy, such as geothermal and renewables; a changing energy landscape; and society’s changing energy needs and environmental concerns.

“It sounds cliché,” Amanam said, “but what really interested me about ERE is I’ve always wanted to do something that carried a lot of weight and meant something, to do something that could change the world. My sophomore year, I took a class called Energy 101 from my current adviser, energy resources engineering Professor TONY KOVSCEK. It sparked my interest in understanding how the oil and gas industry affects everything we do in our life, socially, economically and culturally. It’s the linchpin to the world we live in today.”

Amanam’s passion for his academic calling is not lost on others. “I go to a lot of events to which I bring students as emissaries,” Nevle said. “Usua is very effective at communicating what the ERE major has to offer students in a personal and compelling way. He has a charisma about him, a stage presence. When he speaks, people want to listen.”

You can hear Amanam in his own words in a video produced in a partnership between the School of Earth Sciences and Athletics.

Read BRUCE ANDERSON‘s full profile of Amanam on the School of Earth Sciences website.