Evidently it takes us successfully placing a space telescope a million miles from Earth to write here for the first time since January 2, 2021. I’ve been short-form writing elsewhere, but let’s face it, Hope and Inspiration quit abruptly when faced with an insurrection at the nation’s Capitol, Year 2 (and 3) of COVID, the passing of friends and family members, energy grid failures, and the protracted erosion of American democracy and human rights. How do you blaze a path to the future when you are being dragged backwards? Only a hypocrite can mentor students towards a future of … what exactly? What am I making for them? What am I helping them make? With what? And for how long?
For one moment: Something goes right and we prioritize science again. Even if for a mercilessly few news cycles, words like “nebula,” “gravitational lensing,” and “galaxy clusters” are placed in circulation, and at least one young person now wants to be an astrophysicist or rocket engineer when they grow up. We are reminded of our size and age in the universe. Hope and Inspiration rise up and promise to stick around if we work on creating and sustaining more such moments. Ones of wonder, awe and learning, not anger, fear and ignorance.
Read the following sentence, think about it, and then come back. We are large and old enough to engineer and launch a machine that overcame 344 single points of failure to give us awe-inspiring and humbling portraits of exactly how small and young we are. This isn’t meant to inflate or belittle; instead I suggest another metric of being: to think and live in the zone between big and small, old and young, present and future, near and far. It’s not easy to get into that groove and uncomfortable to be in it for more than a few seconds. I keep trying. It helps if you study Stephan’s Quintet, as an example.
“Together, the five galaxies of Stephan’s Quintet are also known as the Hickson Compact Group 92 (HCG 92). Although called a “quintet,” only four of the galaxies are truly close together and caught up in a cosmic dance. The fifth and leftmost galaxy, called NGC 7320, is well in the foreground compared with the other four. NGC 7320 resides 40 million light-years from Earth, while the other four galaxies (NGC 7317, NGC 7318A, NGC 7318B, and NGC 7319) are about 290 million light-years away.” – NASA.gov
The distance light travels in one Earth year is known as a light year. In one picture, we see a snapshot from 290 million years ago (before the time of dinosaurs) and from 40 million years ago (after dinosaurs went extinct). You are simultaneously witnessing two patches of the universe that bookend dinosaurs! It’s an unconformity of time in space! And in the background are galaxies billions of light years away – from before our Earth and solar system even formed! How lucky we are to be able to hold and bend these concepts in our brains, to visualize and perceive differently, to know there is so much more. Another measure of being.
The mind-blowing data coming in from the James Webb space telescope are a testament to humanity’s abilities and our relative size in this universe. They are also the result of more than a quarter century of innovation, risk, failure, and growth. Here are some thoughts on each of these aspects, which I hope resonate with every scientist and engineer Building Something Good.
1. Innovation – Go boldly in the direction of your dreams, but lead with honesty in planning. “It started with a very optimistic and unrealistic cost estimate with a huge promise. It’s like relationships that we have in our lives. If you start with a lie, it’s usually not going to last.” – Thomas H. Zurbuchen, NASA.
2. Risk – Quantified probabilities of success and failure, but probabilities nonetheless. “Exploration involves risk. If you’re not willing to take the risk, you don’t belong in this business.” – Mike Menzel, lead Missions systems engineer, NASA JWST
3. Failure – Failure is an option, and there is crying in science. There’s also pulling yourself together and moving on with integrity in science. “People make mistakes. What you don’t want to do is infusing in people, especially your engineers and technicians, an environment that says ‘Oh, don’t make a mistake and if you do it’s more profitable to hide it than to let it out.’ If they’re going to cancel us, they’re going to cancel us, but we’re going to do the honest thing.”
4. Growth – Being accountable for, learning from, communicating, and reaching out of past mistakes to succeed. “I realized how much worry I had been holding onto, after working on this thing for the past 11 years – and a lot of my colleagues have worked on it longer … but that it’s fully capable of doing all the amazing science for which it was built. It’s a wonderful feeling.” – Jane Rigby, operations project scientist, NASA JWST
What does this all have to do with the here, now, and putting food in people’s mouths? Why are we going about exploring space when there are a multitude of problems to fix here in America? Well, why can’t we do both? It is no longer an either-or proposition when liberated from the dual myths that there is only so much of the pie to go around and that money generation is a zero-sum game. Let’s not forget, however, that publicly-funded space science has plentiful rewards that have bettered modern life and continue to contribute to our standard of living. Only as long as we keep Hope and Inspiration alive.
Exploration and democracy go hand in hand. The folks mentioned here – the engineers and scientists who built and launched the JWST, will analyze its data, and may invent indescribable new technologies from their findings – didn’t spring up out of nowhere. This is why we need well-funded public schools with better-paid teachers, easier paths to higher education, intelligent political representatives to populate our scientific oversight and funding committees, and greater public access to science media and literacy.
Please let these not be the last new NASA images of the universe I see in my lifetime.
Sources and further reading:
PBS Nova “Ultimate Space Telescope” [watch online | 53 minutes]
Two weeks ago, I held virtual office hours for those recently out of work and/or seeking career reinvention. It was an apt culmination to a year of public talks, online writing and one-to-one conversations on career change, diversity & inclusion, and strategies to work beyond today’s global impasse into a sustainable future of growth for all. The gist of the engagements come down to: How to Innovate and how to feel Empowered in the truest sense of the terms. So, I cleverly entitled my session Innovation & Empowerment Office Hours.
Session Philosophy and Caveats
Before going into any such session, it is important to understand and state your own principles and boundaries.
These are two philosophies I hold dear: 1) The future of our energy and infrastructure are heavily dependent on understanding earth systems and forward-facing, cross-trained earth practitioners will increase in value, and 2) A visionary leader mindset can be learned and internalized.
Creating a sustainable future requires adjusting our clocks from short-term fiscal cycles to beyond our lifetimes into The Long Now. So, adopting an attitude of Timefulness, which includes” a feeling for distances and proximities in the geography of deep time” can only help. As Marcia Bjornerud goes on, “Most humans have no sense of temporal proportion … the durations of the great chapters in Earth history, the rates of change during previous intervals of environmental instability, the intrinsic timescales of ‘natural capital’ like oil, gas, air and groundwater.” Temporal and spatial proportion is the bread and butter of earth practitioners! Brave innovation in the earth system, with leadership from earth scientists and engineers, will immensely help humanity as we collectively chart our planetary future.
Prior to the office hours, I posted the following rules:
Contribute To Receive. You get what you give to any conversation. If you’re there just to pick brains and not contribute, pass resumes, or hog the engagement, I reserve the right to eject you from the call, and
Honest Thought Required. Come with an open heart and mind, but most importantly, come with them. Few topics are off-limits but let’s try to stay productive.
Despite this, a couple of attendees violated the rules of engagement and showed up simply to suss out how I got my current role, and if there are jobs available where I am now. Thankfully, we were able to quickly get past this sort of dead-end interaction and turn them into useful conversations out of which both parties got something. The flip side of such sessions is that they require a significant investment of free/volunteer time and being strong for others can take an emotional toll. You have to set firm boundaries to avoid being eaten alive.
I love that people felt comfortable enough to get vulnerable and share what really mattered to them, and wish I could hold more such sessions on a frequent basis. Community is critical at this time. However, there is only one of me and one of you. I urge that you help broaden the impact by holding similar office hours in your own circles, and encourage others to do the same.
Since each of us is a complex integral of our experiences, how do we use that to live today while simultaneously building for tomorrow? How do we innovate – generate value – and empower ourselves and others? In the office hours, I set out the following themes that the attendees discussed:
Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities & Threats and Personal Development Plan
The office hours started with a meditation on Strengths from previous experiences that can translate to any job regardless of industry. And another deeper one on Weaknesses, which I view as Challenges or Gaps, that may be addressed through future roles, along with tactics to overcome personality differences and cultural barriers in those roles.
Again, going through Opportunities and Threats, I reminded participants that circumstances and events are Opportunities and Threats. Unless they are about to physically harm you, people are not Threats and don’t treat them as such. Go to the root of what about someone threatens you, and address that as a Challenge or separately outside this exercise.
I then suggested they use these findings towards their very own personal development plan, not just in a professional context.
Where do you see yourself next year and in 2, 5, 10, 20, 30+ years?
How do you view retirement?
What do you see you as having accomplished by then?
Whom do you want to have interacted and teamed with to accomplish these objectives?
To help shed the blinders of recent employment, I encouraged participants to think in terms of success for the long haul, beyond the quick fix and quarterly financial report cycle.
Whether you are a person or a group, learning about and preparing for the future come in handy in detecting and acknowledging bubbles instead of ignoring and trying to avoid their inevitable pops. Another suggestion is probabilistic futures thinking exercises (great for groups), which “use divergent thinking, seeking many possible answers and acknowledging uncertainty [versus] analytical thinking which uses convergent thinking to seek the right answer and reduce uncertainty.”
Speaking of denial, a big elephant in the room is mental health. There’s no crying in the workplace and we are professionals conditioned to “squeeze our rage into a bitter little ball and release it an inappropriate time.” (Points to whoever gets that pop-culture reference.) Talk therapy is a lifesaver for those who can access it because it helps many verbalize and work through their own issues with the help of a certified professional. I asked participants about their current levels of anxiety, depression, anger, coping mechanisms, and their access to mental health and community required at any time but especially now.
There was a surprising outpouring of feelings on the part of all participants. Combined with a sense of betrayal on the part of their former employers, the lack of a real career community outside their place of work is where the unemployed feel quite exposed and raw. There are many I know who have suffered long bouts of extreme emotional distress on layoff or retirement, because they have come to conflate job with identity and purpose. How terrifying is it to not have “a home” because you no longer have a job doing what you know and love? This is an important aspect in which professional geo-scientific (more) and engineering (less) societies had ample opportunity and instead have dropped the ball. Over time, many have turned into growth-driven companies themselves that are run by cliques, protect the material interests of corporate members, and pay lip service to transformation, which inevitably results in the treatment of members as little more than dues-paying store customers. This is a dying business model; instead our work and its people need more forward-looking, courageous, energetic, open, grassroots and collaborative platforms.
Please remember this: If in your heart and soul you consider yourself an earth scientist or engineer, no one and nothing can take that away from you. Especially not a company. As I’ve said before, I urge you to take this time as a mental health break and “then imagine what you really want to do be it in energy or not, no matter whether such a thing exists yet or not. And then bring your whole self to follow that with passion and dedication.” The job belongs to the company. You own your career.
The Near Future
Some aspects of this discussion included:
1) Folks who had previously felt safe in their jobs and had thus lacked the perspective of “the outside world” finding out they are not alone. Misery loves company, but company can quickly turn into a force for growth.
Here, I returned to the “futures thinking” philosophy and cited my history of leaving a company when I was already employed. You are nothing but a number to companies and they are in no way beholden to you. Corporate loyalty is a thing of the past, and
2) How critical it is for individuals to create networks and for groups to enable sustainable, give-and-take communities of value when the going is good, and not just seek and/or withdraw meaningful support when times are bad. What is the value that you bring to the table? Why should people join you? What is your lobbying power? What real change can you make and consistently? If an organization can help people only in times of plenty, then this is the time to consider that a risk and pull way back to rethink mission.
Change is hard, y’all. We discussed pivoting and reinvention as functions of years in career, financial capability, and time investment, and how much energy professionals with high-paying jobs up until now are willing and able to reach out of their comfort zones to morph. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a computing or data science education, but if you are just getting around to it and because it’s the in thing now, you are already behind the curve. Instead, stop and ask yourself the following:
What moves me?
What burning world problems do I want to solve?
With whom do I want to work?
How and where do I want to work?
What financial, short-term and long-term risks am I willing to take?
Further, doing whatever needs to be done, learning whatever needs to be learned, in order to better understand the earth as a system ought to be the only driver of an earth practitioner. Coding/data science is a tool, but it is not the only tool. What other tools can you discover, build, hone and bring to the table? There are quantitative toolkits, analytical toolkits, field methods, engineering advances, emerging skills. Whatever it is, be one with the future of your tool set and keep it sharp. Again, adopt a mentality of seeing everything one achieves (even during a work hiatus and even if you leave your field) as in service of a meaningful career.
Finally, before mid-career professionals write themselves off, I firmly believe they are in the Goldilocks zone as they have a track record and enough experience to oversee and deliver projects, and learn new things efficiently. Wentworth’s CEO Katherine Roe recently said, “[The way] the sector was behaving 30 years ago is no longer relevant. I don’t have 40 years’ experience, but I have relevant daily experience and I think right now, given how quickly things are moving, that’s really more valuable in some ways.”
The Future of Oil and Gas
With Saudi Arabia, OPEC, COVID and other market forces in charge, we can no longer look to most independent or national Oil & Gas companies as the adults in the room for future-facing advice on the fate of the fossil fuel economy, as they too are at a loss, fiscally and strategically speaking. Moreover, these companies serve stock/stakeholders and unfortunately cannot/need not invent beyond “do more with less people” to overcome their economic hurdles. There will always be a need for Oil & Gas geoscientists and engineers, but ones with strong constitutions to brave the inevitable roller coaster that will seat fewer and fewer geo-professionals.
Frustration and disappointment hang over this area as well. Not so much that fossil fuels have started to experience a use decline (a very long-tailed curve, nevertheless a decline), but more that Oil & Gas companies are laying off qualified earth scientists and engineers instead of upskilling and placing them in the front seat to strategy/solutioning for the energy transition and sound policymaking needed with it. This brings us to the other elephant in the room.
The Energy Transition
Oil and gas on one end and sustainable energy on the other of the energy topology is all companies talk about and invest in. What about the huge chasm of the energy transition in between? Few strategize the real sausage making and toil between where we are and the brave new green world we desire. The Transition problem space, and in fact every earth question – including infrastructure, carbon capture and storage, water supply, and so much more – needs good earth scientists and engineers collaborating with other smart people of different backgrounds and expertise. Without us, it will not be done well or sustainably.
Outside of this session, I’ve talked to many about the unknowns of this concept: When is the last part of the energy transition? Will we anticipate it usefully, with many probabilistic models and outcomes? What about shifting at scale? When is net-zero emissions really (What is it really? Like oil and gas economics, the answer depends on whether you do it full-cycle or point-forward and how you report it.) And what should energy companies and other key actors do to transition? How do we work with countries and communities with the right policy that benefits the most people? How do we make it so that people who intrinsically understand the earth impact its policy?
Again, there are countless opportunities here for those who know the business of the earth, but we have to birth them. How and where? Again with ourselves and others, if we do the work of joining together to form tight-knit and open communities of invention.
The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility – The Ideas Behind the World’s Slowest Computer, Stewart Brand
Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World, Marcia Bjornerud
Lab Dynamics: Management and Leadership Skills for Scientists, Carl and Suzanne Cohen
How To Be An Anti-Racist, Ibram X. Kendi
The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age, Bina Venkataraman
How to Think like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education, Scott Newstok
Victor Hugo beautifully said, “If a writer wrote merely for their time, I would have to break my pen and throw it away.” I fully realize that one’s basic physiological needs (food, water, shelter, safety) require employment, but if that is where each of us stops, we have already lost. This “I’ve got mine and I’ll kick it down the road” mentality is what brought individuals, corporations, societies, countries and the whole world to the conflictive stagnation of 2020. Our first task as a species is to get over what serves us in the short-term – job, privilege, institutional barriers, denial of past and future – and build for people you will likely never see, using philosophies of constant reinvention, career, equity, and collective growth. It’s way past time for a global reckoning. Is it possible? Yes. Is it ambitious? Always. Bring it.
In this spirit of collective growth, I will eventually launch a non-profit online collaborative that prioritizes open access and dignified interaction for all. In this space, participants will be able to collaborate and form their own networks for mutual support, skills development, and solution building. My aim is to create a foundational community diverse in expertise and demographics, representing science, technology, the arts, sociology, education, design, and business development, with inclusion, equity and accountability as core tenets. Stay tuned for more news in the coming years.
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, square-jawed, and plush-haired physician in the middle of the featured picture is my father’s father. Or he was. When clearing out the family homestead in India last fall, Dad discovered Naina Thatha’s death certificate and handed it to me. Date of Death: February 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 passing 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 twenty five years in India, the second in Kuwait and the third in the United States. 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 is 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 in a crowded public space.)
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 the Known daily to live, 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? And where and who will we be?