Advice for the young at heart Soon we will be older When we gonna make it work?*
in the fourteenth week of a quarantine or some kind of COVID-time physical and social limitation,
into three months of energy supply and demand shocks, mass layoffs and continued unemployment in many sectors,
almost a month into global protests against police violence and daily discussions on race, diversity and equity in science and the workplace,
officially in an economic recession while strapped tight into the reopening-reclosing-reopening-reclosing roller coaster,
in the fraught lead-up to another US presidential election while still dealing with the now that is the result of the previous one,
exhausted and uncertain,
working through exhaustion and trying to handle uncertainty,
at a crossroads.
Please let’s not cancel 2020, but instead hold and look at it. It is the inevitable outcome of the decisions we made as a modern people, country and world, and the point at which we admit we cannot go on like this and then make important choices for tomorrow. Through all of my conversations and observations of the last few months, one truth crystallizes: Not only is it impossible to return to the past, I inherently distrust people who venerate history, especially a static, symbolic and romanticized history, at the expense of the future. So, how do we make that future and starting right now?
Looking longingly over our shoulders at glowing versions of an increasingly blurry yesterday – the one in which a few were comfortable and try to convince the rest of us that we were, too, and wouldn’t it be nice if the children and second-class citizens simply understood that and re-assumed their places in the antiquated but safe power structure – will not get us there. In fact, that’s what got us to the 2020 we’re currently scratching our heads over. Nor will half-baked and ill-advised attempts help in any way. We want to digitally transform, but not too much because it’s not in our budget. We aspire to go carbon-negative, but wave away the full-cycle costs and the labor of transition. We want to appear diverse and inclusive, but hey people of color, you do the work and we may or may not listen. We like to use words like resilience, but tremble, cower and fall apart at mere ideas that challenge our long-held world views.
Yes, I have absolutely conjoined technological, industrial, social, economic and political issues here because
Science, engineering, technology, infrastructure, policy, politics and society (the people who do this work and the people who are impacted by it) are so tightly intertwined that you cannot effectively work with one without actively engaging and impacting the others, and
The future requires viewing the whole earth and all of its systems as one large interdependent system. If you can understand multi-physics processes, you can understand this.
It is in our power to shape far-reaching change. And this is where I draw a line in the sand: You’re either committed to the future, or against it. You’re a giver, or a taker. You’re uncomfortable and using that as a signal to change yourself, or going down with the deck chair on that water-logged ship. And I am done aligning myself with those who don’t want to do the heavy lifting to realize this. Conversely, I stand with, learn from and give to those who want to do the work – “from a place of trying to do the right thing more than trying to do what is best to maximize [their] personal possibilities” * – to make a world of huge capacity for future generations.
Last week, I gave a talk to a group of young and/or out-of-work geoscientists and petroleum engineers in a career strategies seminar as a part of the Society of Petroleum Engineers Gulf Coast webinar series for their members in transition. The title of my talk is Strategies for Career Future-Proofing. Yes, come for the fluffy corporate-speak title, stay for the real talk, which is available for your listening pleasure HERE (fast forward to 1:46:00 for mine, but I encourage you to check out the two speakers who went before me).
At the very beginning of the talk, I stress the following: Strategies – not tactics. Career – my words are deliberately crafted for those intending to build a career as an extension of self, not folks seeking jobs. Future proofing – not Now proofing. Thinking strategically about building a career and a future to go with it requires the deep consideration of People – who you are and your community, your Practice – how to get where you want to go, and your personal Philosophy – why do any of this? With my own personal educational and career journey, the talk goes into further detail on each of these with examples and tasks, with these takeaways:
1) People: As earth problems grow, cross-trained earth practitioners will only increase in value. To be the best possible earth scientist/engineer, your only driver ought to be doing what needs to be done and learning what needs to be learned to better understand and serve the earth as an integrated system,
2) Practice: If you are in or thinking of going back to school, anyone can get a degree or acquire a skill. Instead, take the opportunity to learn how to learn and (re)build your foundation. For their own future relevance, universities can stand to fundamentally revamp curricula to foster thinkers and creators, and not commodify education to stamp out STEM workers. To quote Scott Newstok, “The value of an education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks,” and
3) Philosophy: Whatever you choose to do, plan it with vision and commitment to yourself and the world, while nurturing a strong personal philosophy of thoughtfulness, curiosity and being intentional.
People, practice and philosophy take an immense amount of trust (in yourself and others), training (do the work) and time (so, start now).
Along with the tasks, I also assigned reading:
The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility
Timefulness: How Thinking Like A Geoscientist Can Help Save The World
The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead In A Reckless Age
How To Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons From A Renaissance Education
How can I make long-term thinking automatic and common instead of difficult and rare? How can I learn and let in more and more that will help me see the earth and infrastructure, our whole being on this planet, as a system? How do I deepen and broaden my own understanding of the human experience to better design for that system? Nostalgia is a hell of a drug, but I’d rather dream about the future.
Come with us who will build new energies, curricula and communities that the future’s children will then take down and build anew. Else, goodbye.
Since I announced my move to a new role as a program manager in Microsoft’s Azure for Energy division, I have received many notes of celebration and curiosity. The heartfelt ones from friends and colleagues messaged directly to me are extremely touching and inspiring. What I will talk about here are the hundreds of other messages I have received – from acquaintances and complete strangers – quizzing me on this move. Questions such as: “How did you jump from geophysics to technology?” “Can I call you some time to pick your brain on becoming a geologist in the cloud?” “Why did you quit geoscience?” and “If you find a position for me, let me know.” That such messages come from a place of fear and desperation at a time of unprecedented job loss is fully apparent to me, but this is exactly the wrong time for panic to dictate how energy professionals craft their future. So, I penned the following thoughts to help. I have struggled with releasing them and in this manner, but it is too important a message to shelve or dance around, and one from which professionals of all stripes and ages can benefit.
The Short Version
My responses to these queries are as follows: “I didn’t,” “No,” “I am still very much a geoscientist,” and “I’ll get right on that.” Technology for geoscience is a journey I have been on for twenty years – one of foresight, preparation, and patience – and opportunity finally struck in 2020, as the industry now has no choice but to catch up. I have master’s degrees in geology and computational science and looked for work like this back when I graduated at the dawn of the century. In the absence of such openings, I took fully geoscience and fully technology roles to build up consequential experience, and even once left oil and gas for a technology research and business development role. There is no magic pill, one-hour conversation, TED talk, or online course that will land a career subsurface professional a viable role in technology. Instead, the requirements are a love of your science, futuristic and risk-taker mindset, track record of learning complex, uncomfortable new things to further your work, and toolkit and human network that takes years to develop and curate. If all you want is a job, this space is probably not for you. Technology companies are really looking for deep hybrids: dynamic individuals who have energy and technology expertise, relevant industry experience and visibility, and vision to expand tech offerings into long-lasting transformational solutions beyond oil and gas. Lastly, here, I am neither safe nor done. There is no arrival, only a long, arduous, exciting, uncertain journey ahead, for which I continue to prepare.
Instead of rushing into another career phase that is now in fashion and then finding yourself in competition with thousands of others who had the same thought, take this time to breathe, imagine and figure out what you really want to do – be it in energy or not, no matter whether such a thing exists yet or not – and follow it with passion and dedication. Furthermore, take the time to form meaningful, giving relationships with individual members of your community instead of collecting and mining contacts, which is just taking. To thine own self and your people be true, all else will come from that.
The Long Version
My life philosophy along with educational and career steps have actively prepared me for this role.
I have always loved science and technology. As far back as I can remember, it was Why and How not What. My parents encouraged and created physical and intellectual zones for my scientific inquisitiveness (thanks, mom and dad), but being biologists and not very tech-inclined, paid little attention to that aspect of my education. Moreover, when I was growing up, engineering, technology and computers were the domain of boys, and the only boy I was supposed to follow was my brother, right into biology and medicine. Thankfully, physical science was so compelling that I went from being math-phobic (true story) to excelling at chemistry, physics, and higher mathematics (thanks, Mr. Kalra).
This fed into to my other passion: calculated risk-taking. Failure for me would have meant not getting into the university, academic program or job of my choice and may even have meant working in relative poverty, but it did not stop me. Take a few measurements and then jump into the unknown. In 1991, my parents bought me a computer which I set up and taught myself to program into the wee hours, and befriended those at my nerd high school who shared and challenged my views on everything from science to books and from politics to music (thanks to too many to name). In taking these intellectual and sometimes physical risks, I discovered geology and more about computing. More vitally, I let in as much as I could on scientific thought and the world and was no longer one thing. There was nothing and no one holding me to one known form, especially me.
After I wrapped up a wonderful BS in Geology at Illinois (thanks, Wang-Ping Chen and Steve Marshak) and MS in Structural Geology at Wisconsin, I passed up an offer of a PhD in Geomechanics to join another MS program in Computational Sciences for Geophysics also at Wisconsin. That decision was made after a summer internship at Mobil Oil in which I interpreted 3D seismic of complex deformation and constructed 3D visual models to compare experimental vs. field examples of transtensional faulting (thanks, Rolf Ackermann).
Geoscience is inherently 3D and 4D. Add to that the mind-blowing size and power of seismic data and attendant compute and harnessing that quantitative information with analytical tools for decision-making, and I was hooked. But not as a novelty and instead as a solemn truth: This is the future. We should all be working this way. Seismic data also made more than a computational impression; interpreting seismic as a geophysicist would be more useful than as a geologist. A seismic image is but a unique solution on which to paint a story. If the data change, so do the interpretation and the story. Morphing my education in this non-traditional way was a difficult decision for which I had extraordinarily little support from my geoscience peers. Many asked why I was leaving geoscience, and some went as far as accusing me of not having been a real geoscientist to begin with. I had to find the courage to tell them I was making myself a different and better geoscientist, and to wait and see.
My second MS taught techniques of computation and visualization which I simultaneously ported over to geophysics (thanks, David Alumbaugh). The short-lived but multi-disciplinary program mandated eight to ten core courses over two years – distributed computing, machine language, scientific visualization, art for visualization, engineering applications software development, and graduate level courses in students’ individual field of study – and a capstone project on a project of our choosing, which in my case was in borehole geophysics. I learned, worked, and created alongside a small group of nuclear engineers, biomedical scientists, climatologists, geographers, anthropologists, artists, and city planners, and that made our individual experiences so much bigger and more widely applicable. My favorite professor in this program was visual artist George Cramer who taught me a crucial story-telling and life lesson: Context is more important than content.
During this master’s program, I interned at another supermajor working on an assignment that included the seismic interpretation of an ultra-deepwater Gulf of Mexico discovery and seismic imaging as well as scripting and visualization techniques for kinematic structural restoration (stretch goals I tacked onto the project once there). At the end of this kick-ass, cutting-edge internship, I was asked by the company’s geoscience discipline manager if I wanted to be a geologist, geophysicist or “IT person” as I couldn’t be “all three” if I wanted a career there.
Fast forward to three months later when I was offered a role in Subsurface Information Technology by Shell in New Orleans. Here was a company that got it, until two years after running the immersive virtual environment and working with innovations in Shell’s impressive internal seismic interpretation tool (thanks, Stacey Lusk), I was asked a similar question, “Do you want to continue on the geophysics track or the IT track?” Not the most progressive of HR offerings, but to Shell’s credit, they wanted me to move up and succeed by becoming a solid interpreter and end user, to inform the interpretation engine and workflows going forward (thanks, Don Haefner, Rocky Detomo, and Keerthi McIntosh). For my next four years at Shell, I focused on learning as much about qualitative and quantitative seismic interpretation as I could. Yet, my heart was elsewhere. Why couldn’t I focus on and be career-rewarded for both geoscience and computing at the same time?
I left Shell in early 2009 to join a small geospatial technology company in northern Ohio, close to my family. While I soon discovered that the job was not a fit for my skills and ambitions, the variety of business opportunities that I managed in this role revealed that I am not simply a scientist, but one with commercial and managerial aptitude. Returning to the oil and gas industry soon after, I was essentially reinvented, with a renewed sense of geoscientific purpose and fresh career goals and aspirations.
The great opportunities at Nexen Petroleum, which later became CNOOC International, helped me grow a meaningful geophysics career (thanks, Jack Gregory and Lei Leu). While at no time did I hold a strictly technology role in nine years, I made it a point to stay close to quantitative and data-rich subsurface exploration and appraisal projects of significant impact to the bottom line. In fact, one of my most fun and valuable roles was working on a deepwater regional team while also a member of the quantitative interpretation team; this helped raise awareness of rock physics and seismic inversion for reservoir properties as a valuable part of the interpretation workflow instead of as a niche or luxury. Instead of waiting to be given opportunities, I petitioned management for and received roles of increasing responsibility (thanks, John Pritchett and Art Leibold), which included project management, people management and business development (thanks, Chris Dillistone and Lana Ellard). In my own time, I took online courses on new methods in scientific programming and mathematics for data science and machine learning, attended interdisciplinary science and technology conferences, made good friends with computationally-inclined geoscientists (thanks, Matt Hall), and read everything I could get my hands on with respect to geo-computing and integrated subsurface interpretation.
At the same time, I actively participated in the Society of Exploration Geophysicists (SEG), the Geophysical Society of Houston (GSH) and other subsurface science and engineering societies. I helped found and grow the SEG Women’s Network (thanks, Klaas Koster) and now serve on the SEG Foundation Board (thanks, Glenn Bear and Anna Shaughnessy). I was also the First Vice President of the GSH (thanks, Amy Rhodes) and threw an exceptional symposium on the modern value of seismic inversion and a number of diversity and inclusion events that have brought together many subsurface women and allies in the Houston area. I am an avid writer, but thanks to social media, I can converse more immediately on topics scientific and not, and delight in my tight online network of geoscientists, scientists, and science enthusiasts.
Why do I do all this? I love people and helping them realize their best possible selves. I also believe strongly in Giving back to the community that made me. In so doing, not only have I constructed a solid network, I have gained reputation, a certain amount of respect, and lifelong friends. You may have noticed through the course of this essay where I stopped to thank some key people who really saw and took a chance on me, let me into their world. If you get nothing else out of this essay, please have this: The notion that each of us is an individual bootstrapper that has come up solely on our own merit is a dangerous myth. It is also indicative of an emotionally immature Taker attitude. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and grow from here because of our communities and the quality of the relationships we have with them. And, as scientists, we cannot serve our work without serving its people honestly and compassionately, expecting nothing in return. If something comes back, it is extra.
The more you learn and keep learning and hold the door open for others to learn and grow, the better you are for it. Unfortunately, humans have two bad habits: 1) They are resistant to change, and 2) Once they have something, they are reluctant to share it with others. These are the Stasis and I’ve Got Mine attitudes, the hobgoblins of little minds, which stand in stark contrast to Dynamic and Growth mindsets. It is never too late in life to start moving and diversifying your heart and brain, to open them up to new people and ideas. Growing into something seemingly new, however, takes a lot of time and preparation, but what it truly requires is courage and kindness starting with yourself. As the philosopher Alain de Botton says in A Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success, “Our ideas of what it would mean to live successfully are not our own. They are sucked in from other people … Make sure your ideas of success are your own. We should focus in on our ideas and make sure that we own them, that we are truly the authors of our own ambitions.”
The following is an exercise I find useful in self-replenishing (getting unstuck), innovating and growing generosity: Take a sheet of paper and divide it into two columns. On the left-hand side, note down where and who you are, and on the right where and who you want to be. The trick is in writing down everything and then prioritizing the top three. Once you nail that down, ask if you can live with who and where you are and, if not, what you are going to do about getting to who and where you wish to be. This is hard emotional labor, but an unavoidable requirement to acknowledge and appreciate yourself for who you are, where you have been and the forms you have taken and to get on the road to a better you.
So, this is how I got here and am still going. I did not wake up one day, read the news, and make a switch to technology for energy. Instead, my whole life, education and career have evolved to balance my personal vision with on-the-ground reality. We are geoscientists and engineers, folks, and did not get to this stage of career without imagination and will. But, what we have allowed our careers to do to us is to categorize us, to clip our points to fit one box or another, when in fact, we can and should be this and this and this and that, and to be awesome at it all! On my part, I have spent my life refusing to be siloed and actively aligning myself and working with visionary thinkers, and this is one result. Again, I did not have to get this job and it comes with no guarantees. I am simply thankful long-term preparation finally met opportunity and will continue to work gratefully and graciously toward building a future we all want and deserve.
“A second chance doesn’t mean that you’re in the clear. In many ways, it is the more difficult thing. Because a second chance means that you have to try harder. You must rise to the challenge without the blind optimism of ignorance.”
from Severance by Ling Ma
The handsome, plush-haired and square-jawed physician in the middle of the featured picture is my father’s father. Or he was. When clearing out the family home in India last fall, Dad discovered Naina Thatha’s death certificate and handed it to me. Date of Death: February 5, 1963 at the age of 59. Fifty nine. It is unfathomable to me that this man of family legend didn’t make it ten years beyond the median age of most of my friends. My grandmother was in her late forties at the time, with seven children in varying stages of young adulthood. Dad was already living and working as a banker in Kuwait, sending money home as eldest sons did, with every expatriate worker’s dream of return. Thatha’s death solidified Dad’s position as primary breadwinner and an extended stay outside India. Extended. Sixty years later, he hasn’t moved back, only farther away.
My parents have now lost two homes and make their third as American midwestern retirees. I count my mother’s life in quarter-century chunks. The first 25 years in India, the second in Kuwait and the third here. A queen of self-discipline, she maintains the same strong values and rituals possessed and honed since childhood, but each chapter has seen her a different person altogether. Moving, relocation, dislocation – these aren’t just changes in places but also self that often require a painful shedding of skin and even more painful reinvention. The offensive categorization of American vs. “foreign” identity aside, this is mainly why I scoff when people ask “Where are you from?” or “Where’s home?” It’s not a simple answer for anyone, not even for the person asking, and really pointless. It’s like asking “Who are you?” (An infinitely more interesting question, but one that requires serious soul-searching and conversation, not meaningless one-word responses to an unimaginative stranger across a crowded bar.)
NPR recently published an opinion piece entitled An Appeal To Youth To Face Coronavirus With Self-Sacrifice, Not Selfishness. My immediate response to this was “No need to self-sacrifice. Just stay the f— inside.” Self-sacrifice. Do words no longer have meaning? Dad throwing aside his dreams of becoming a botany professor to provide for his family back home in India. My spouse’s blight-impoverished Irish and Belgian-Dutch ancestors who sent their children to the New World never to see or hear from many of them again. Parents across the United States who now have to walk miles to their workplaces with their children in tow, if they still have workplaces. The scores of people who left and leave the comfort of Known daily to live or die fail or succeed in the dark and great Out There. When I ask my parents to remember and feel about their stories, they quickly and constantly sum it up with “We didn’t think about the whys and hows of these things. It’s what we had to do, and we did it.” That’s self-sacrifice.
Today is Day 16 of self-isolation and the last day of the first quarter of 2020. I watch LinkedIn as energy industry colleagues are laid off by the tens, no thanks to the combination of COVID and the sustained low oil price. There isn’t much to spend on and for these days besides the very basics, but “penny pinching” and “career switch” are terms I have begun to hear used more often and in full sincerity by people with money and savings. As a hurricane approaches, we hunker down or evacuate and wait. For something inside the range of imagination. It passes. We get on with the cleanup and rebuilding. What we are in now is something else, strange, and it’s going to take us a long while to re-emerge. I wonder: Where will we be from? Where and who will we be?
The same dream comes to me every night. It always starts in the lobby of One Shell Square in New Orleans. Once the large grinning security guard lets us through the turnstiles, we wait for the elevator. Inside the enclosed space, a dozen of us turn into seven and then a handful and then it’s just me, not knowing which floor to get off on. Each night, the elevator doors open to a different floor: 18, 33, 29 and place me in a donut of offices. Familiar voices in the distance, I walk (sometimes rollerblade, sometimes segway) to them, and they move farther and farther away. I reach my office, in reality threadbare and precise, but in my dreams packed full of computers, books, papers, rocks, pillows, a cot, food, plants (plants?) and every sign that I live there. I walk to the window and look outside. It is already night and outside is Houston, Singapore, Mexico City, Beijing. I hear the call of a colleague and … wake up.
The same dream comes to me every night. Or do I go to it?
Back in reality, it is Day 7 of Self-Isolation. I’ve upped my daily indoor cycling routine to 30 minutes from the normal 20, thanks to my increasingly cooperative left knee. I think of the aging and elderly suffering from or fearful of contracting COVID; their 99 problems and then this, the slowing down but having to cope quickly, the indignity and helplessness of it all. I think of my own severely immunocompromised mother who has two loving, knowledgeable and diligent caregivers and access to world-class healthcare but is still as susceptible as the next person and more isolated than ever. I think back on what this body has experienced in the last decade. It reminds me of the family friend who suffered a painful miscarriage on the banks of the Euphrates while fleeing Kuwait. And the neighbor who lost all of her frozen embryos during the flood of New Orleans. Memories, stories. I wonder what if these people had had cellphones and social media, rapid rescue and more robust storage. Wait. What if we bring the world to a point where no one has to experience much of this ever again? What if the world is not in stagnation or on the road to irreversible deterioration? My intention for us is not to overcome COVID and crisis du jour, but to live, bear witness, learn, record, remember, change, vote and act in ways that ensure we don’t make the same mistakes over and over again.
That we don’t get off the elevator onto another but same circular floor every night and get stuck there until out of REM sleep.
Our nascent book club is reading Ling Ma’s Severance: A Novel, about a handful of American survivors on a fictional Earth broken by a fungal pandemic. (As much as I write openly, reading remains a severely intimate act for me and given a history of rapid exits from prior book clubs, we’ll see). More than a description of yet another dystopian world, the book so far is an exploration of inner life, especially of memory and stories. The protagonist’s memories, her people’s memories, the author’s memories, other memories, other’s memories. Stories. Dreams.
Memories beget memories. Shen Fever being a disease of remembering, the fevered are trapped indefinitely in their memories. But what is the difference between the fevered and us? Because I remember too, I remember perfectly. My memories replay, unprompted, on repeat. And our days, like theirs, continue in an infinite loop. We drive, we sleep, we drive some more.
The past is a black hole, cut into the present day like a wound, and if you come too close, you can get sucked in. You have to keep moving.
The past. Memories. The present. Stories and a conduit. The future. A dream. They all exist. What we do with them will make for better memories, stories, dreams.
You are human. Your feelings are valid. Your emotional and rational takes on any given situation exist simultaneously, so by all means, go ahead. Allow yourself to have those feelings, sit with them and explore their shapes, no matter how different your circumstance, culture and society advise. As long as you don’t drop into that other space. The one of prolonged self-pity and inadequacy. Catch yourself before you fall into the abyss.
Mini-me’s life so far has been book ended by the 9/11/2001 attacks and COVID-19. Think of the times in which the girl grew up. She was a naive yet sensitive 7 when Katrina happened. Today, her graduation from a small and tight-knit liberal arts school was officially cancelled. Domingo and I feel for her given how much she cherishes that community and home of the last four years. Closure was never promised to any of us and my family knows this better than most. Still, it’s not necessarily a lesson you imagine or want the next generation learning in a sudden and hard way. Plenty of time for that down the road. But, there she is, helping her school, running online classes, and making sure her education and that of her classmates keep chugging. Domingo noted that the cheerful way in which she deals with difficult people and circumstances will help her go far. Yup, in that sense, our family sure did save the best for last.
Living in the American South and Katrina taught me that not everyone experiences anything the same way, especially tragedy which becomes untold history. Bearing witness is a responsibility, then. There have to be multiple histories and tellings because there is no way one history represents all.
Write it down. Keep a diary. Do what I did during Katrina, even if it seems pointless. Because it isn’t.
This [project] will, of course, not be routine writing and composing. That’s the point. There is much that all of us and each of us have already experienced in the past few weeks that is shocking, unexpected, unpredictable, unknowable, new; much that we have not felt before and not seen. What is it like to live today knowing that we do not know what tomorrow and the day after will bring?
“I hope that when they have taken this course and others, they have become imbued with the idea that they are citizens.”
Me: I’m a live-in-the-moment kind of person. Mini-me (simultaneously): It’s the truth of the moment. Me: Word.