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UTA honors Michael Ray with 2019 Distinguished Alumni Award

From left, Jon Hagarman, Rita Hagarman, Jo Thompson, Wanda Ray, Michael Ray, Sally Ray, and Dan Ray
From left, Jon Hagarman, Rita Hagarman, Jo Thompson, Wanda Ray, Michael Ray, Sally Ray, and Dan Ray.

Michael Ray earned three degrees in mathematics from The University of Texas at Arlington and went on to a distinguished 36-year career with ExxonMobil. He has also remained connected with his alma mater and has been a staunch advocate for graduate education, and for science education in general.

For his contributions to the University and to society, Ray received the UTA Distinguished Alumni Award during a ceremony at the E.H. Hereford University Center on November 8. He was joined by fellow alumni Shahrzad Amirani, Jacob Monty, and Wendy Okolo.

In addition, State Sen. Kelly Hancock, State Rep. Chris Turner, and Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams were presented with the UTA Distinguished Community Service Award.

“I was thrilled to be named as a recipient, but at the same time it was quite humbling to have been chosen,” Ray said. “I hope it can inspire others. There are so many worthy candidates. It was truly an honor I did not expect. The ceremony was first class.”

Ray has been a member of the UTA College of Science Advisory Council since 2017 and has served as the council’s chair since June 2019. He was the guest speaker for the College’s Fall 2016 Commencement ceremony. In 2008 he and his wife, Wanda, established the Michael B. and Wanda G. Ray Scholarship for Graduate Studies at UTA. They were able to meet some of the scholarship recipients during the November 8 ceremony.

“We wanted to help another generation to pursue their dreams,” he said. “Unless you have rich parents, you can just give up because there are too many things stacked against you. You know the cost but the benefits are a bit harder to see. Our country needs more scientific literacy and more people with advanced degrees in the STEM areas.”

College of Science Dean Morteza Khaledi said Ray has done a great deal for UTA and the College of Science and is extremely deserving of the Distinguished Alumni Award.

“Dr. Ray is a wonderful ambassador for the University, the College and for STEM education,” Khaledi said. “It has been wonderful getting to know him the past few years and it’s a privilege to be able to work with him on the Advisory Council.”

Ray was born in Fort Worth and grew up in nearby Benbrook. He graduated from Western Hills High School, taking summer school after his junior year so he could finish a year early. His older brother was attending UTA and studying physics, a subject Ray also enjoyed.

“I really wanted to learn how to program computers — and this was still the era where you used slide rules for all calculations. High schools had no computers,” he said.

He enrolled at UTA as a physics student in the fall of 1973, less than a month after his 17th birthday. In the early 1970s, job options for physics majors were limited, so after his second year, Ray switched majors to mathematics.

“Mathematics was something I always enjoyed. Being able to formulate problems and solve them was not only challenging but very rewarding,” he said. “I switched majors to mathematics since there were more opportunities.”

His course work kept him very busy but he found time to join the Fencing Club, where he practiced the saber, and to participate in activities with the Baptist Student Union. During his last two years as an undergraduate, Ray had an internship at Electronic Data Systems, where he learned assembler language programming for the IBM 360/370 computers.

“Math and computing were so appealing,” he said. “I decided I wanted to work in numerical solutions – back to that formulating and solving problems I loved so much but now on a grander scale.”

He received a B.S. in Mathematics in 1976 and decided to go on to graduate school to work on a master’s degree. He attributes his decision to remain at UTA for grad school to Rangachary Kannan, a professor of mathematics who became Ray’s faculty advisor.

Michael Ray, left, with faculty advisor Rangachary Kannan during Ray’s days as a graduate student. (Photo courtesy of Michael Ray)
Michael Ray, left, with faculty advisor Rangachary Kannan during Ray’s days as a graduate student. (Photo courtesy of Michael Ray).

“He was a wonderful teacher and mentor — that’s not to say he was easy,” Ray said of Kannan, who was a dynamic advocate for mathematics and later served as department chair from 1996 until he succumbed to Hodgkin's lymphoma at age 53 in 2000.

Ray received an M.A. in Mathematics in 1978 and began working on his Ph.D. under Kannan. In 1979 he took an internship with NASA where, during the early days of the Space Shuttle program, he migrated code from the shuttle flight simulators to desktop computers so flight controllers could determine when to initiate problems for the astronauts to deal with during their flight training.

Ray says he had many outstanding math professors at UTA, including brothers Roger and Dick Mitchell, Larry Heath, Donald Greenspan, and Mike Lord, among others. It was Lord who suggested to Ray In 1980 that he should apply for an internship with Mobil, which Ray did.

“If he hadn’t done that, I would never have considered going to work for that industry,” Ray said.

Instead, Ray earned his Ph.D. in 1981 and began a career with Mobil which would last for 36 years. He started in research and development and in 1991 was promoted to senior research associate, where he was a primary investigator and program leader for Mobil’s proprietary basin modeling software, Sextant.

In 1994 he became manager for basin analysis and led Mobil’s simulator development efforts for basin modeling, quantitative hydrocarbon potential, regional geology, gravity interpretation, as well as activities in remote sensing, satellite-derived gravity and seep detection. He also introduced innovative basin modeling software as Mobil’s global standard.

Ray spent two years as Department Manager of Upstream Strategic Research, where he led technical innovation in a highly leveraged strategic research and development portfolio spanning computational and engineering disciplines. In December 1999, Mobil merged with Exxon, creating the industry giant ExxonMobil, and Ray became Division Manager of Technical Software Development. In 2006 he added another title to his job duties as Manager of Breakthrough Research, which put him in charge of the company’s radical innovation process and strategic planning regarding radical innovation activities and initiatives.

In October 2006, he became director of ExxonMobil’s Physics & Mathematical Sciences Laboratory, and in 2016 he was named Distinguished Science Advisor, a position he held until his retirement in April 2017.

He holds one U.S. patent and has authored or co-authored numerous publications and internal technical reports. In 2009 he was named a Fellow by the Society of Industrial and Applied Mathematics for his outstanding contributions to geophysical computation.

Ray encourages students to never stop learning and to always look for ways to branch out and enhance their knowledge in other areas.

“I’d encourage students to remember that when you work in the industry, you’ll be on a continual learning curve, just like in academia,” he said. “A math degree gives you skills in areas that engineers and physicists don’t have. You can leverage those to help your projects along while learning new areas. It’s good not to define yourself in a limiting fashion.”

Ray noted that in the industrial realm, it is often difficult to guess what someone’s original Ph.D. was in because, after a few years, they became an expert in another area. That holds true even more for undergraduate degrees, he added.

He never passes up the opportunity to recommend UTA and the College of Science to students as a great place to learn the skills which can take them far in any discipline they choose.

“A lot of the innovations today occur at the intersection of disciplines,” he said. “A degree in the sciences, and in particular mathematics, provides the type of education you need for a firm foundation to make those unexpected connections. UTA is a great school to get that foundation, with lots of opportunities to connect across a very diverse group of faculty and students and see things from multiple perspectives.”