Women on the Frontline

Women in R&D

SPE boasts several eminent women scientists including Christine Ehlig-Economides, past SPE President Eve Sprunt, and Sara Akbar, to name just a few. What is the oil and gas R&D field like for women and how can they build a career in that field? Here, three successful women scientists share their excitement and openly discuss their education, what their work is like, why they joined that branch of the industry, the projects they are working on, and what keeps them challenged.


Assistant Professor of Petroleum Engineering,  Pennsylvania State University

Research and development are mechanisms to test new ideas, increase understanding of the systems we deal with, and challenge traditional engineering methods under controlled conditions. University R&D provides the seed for innovation and technological advances in the oil industry.  My research is on reservoir characterization and multiphase flow in porous media and my interest in this topic derives from exposure. Initially, my research involvement was in the area of gravity-driven flow in porous media.

I earned a BS in chemical engineering from Universidad Central de Venezuela in 1997. Shortly after graduation, I became the recipient of a Venezuelan scholarship to pursue graduate studies at Pennsylvania State University, not knowing that it would be the door to a very fulfilling academic career. My parents were perhaps the strongest influence on the early steps of my professional career. My father worked for many years for Venezuela’s Corpoven, former subsidiary of the state-owned oil company PDVSA, and my mother was a professor of organic chemistry at the Valencia Institute of Technology. I grew up in an academic atmosphere, in a country driven by the oil industry. With that background, I completed both MS and PhD degrees in petroleum and natural gas engineering at Penn State, and turned into an educator and researcher through a combination of hard work, support from people around me, and a touch of good fortune. In 2008, I was recognized by the National Science Foundation with a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award. I am also an associate editor for the SPE Journal.

My experience in R&D, in an academic environment, has primarily been one of intellectual freedom. I have the opportunity to decide which research ideas I want to pursue, and how I can contribute to the current issues facing the industry; for example, development of unconventional resources, characterization of complex geologic systems, and enhanced oil recovery. What I really enjoy about my career is reaching out to students in the classroom, through research projects and in career advising. I like the opportunity to share experiences and knowledge, and contribute to the success of younger generations.

Research funding for R&D projects is primarily available from government agencies like the US Department of Energy or the oil industry. Government funding opportunities are highly competitive; research proposals are evaluated by expert panels to qualify the scope, merit, and viability of the ideas proposed. Funding opportunities from the oil industry are more goal-specific and aim at particular needs of the funding corporation. Opportunities in partnering with other universities arise from networking and establishing common research interests with colleagues in your area of expertise. I think university researchers in general favor collaborative work.  Chances of success increase with collaboration among individuals with overlapping interests.  In fact, I think research collaboration is essential to further the reach of scientific findings.

 “I have the opportunity to decide which research ideas I want to pursue, and how I can contribute to the current issues facing the industry.”

Managing my time between teaching, research, service to the profession, and family is the biggest challenge I face every day. I am constantly trying to give my best in everything I do. It is the ultimate test for efficiency, time management, and organizational skills. It is a thrill and I love every minute of it. I think the challenges faced by women working in R&D are the same as those faced by women in science, engineering, and technology careers in general. Women tend to carry a heavier load of household responsibilities than their male counterparts, and critical timing for professional growth often coincides with that of family growth.

I encourage students getting involved in R&D; I feel that the SPE student paper/presentation contest is an excellent avenue to encourage R&D in our graduate and undergraduate students. I had the opportunity to participate as a student, and I encourage my own students to participate. It is a great experience in which students have the opportunity to communicate their research ideas and findings, and represent their schools in a competitive atmosphere.

I do not have a single favorite role model in R&D, male or female. I often find it easier to relate to female examples, perhaps because of a natural tendency to relate to those with whom you share similarities, but I have many role models. A role model is one who contributes to your life, personal or professional, with examples worth following, and I believe we can find many of them around us.


Reservoir Engineer and Researcher, Bergen Research Center, Statoil

What I really enjoy in my job is the possibility to investigate new areas of reservoir engineering and apply the result of my research in real field-development cases. The results are implemented as better workflows, more realistic models, or more efficient tools. Of course, research is also being carried out on more fundamental subjects, whose results will be applied in the longer term, but in the end, and throughout the way, these help us answer many questions.

I was born in 1977 in Iran. I earned a BSc in chemical engineering from Shiraz University in 1999 and a MSc in chemical engineering (environmental engineering) from Sharif University Tehran in 2001. I switched to reservoir engineering during my PhD, which I earned from Imperial College London in petroleum engineering in 2006. I started as a lecturer in petroleum engineering in Sharif University in 2006. I subsequently joined Norsk Hydro in 2007 (Tehran office) as a reservoir engineer, to gain some industry experience. I then moved to Bergen, Norway and joined StatoilHydro (now Statoil) Research Centre (RCB) in 2009. Currently, I work as a researcher and a reservoir engineer at RCB.

Research projects are usually defined where gaps are detected and there is a need for research to fill it. Therefore, the industry defines the research project’s deadline. Of course, in the case of big projects and long-term research, it is usually very difficult to know when these projects will become commercial; however, there is still a plan, with alternatives, on how to carry out the project and an estimated time for results delivery. Some big projects also have different phases and there are deliverables at the end of each phase. This makes it easier for big projects to be managed in time.

Aggressive research is currently conducted on unconventional reservoirs (heavy oil, tight gas, fractured reservoir, etc.) and improved-oil-recovery/enhanced-oil-recovery methods. Due to the economic slowdown, research topics are subject to more prioritization than before, with emphasis on projects that really add value. On the other hand, our industry believes more in developing/spending money on existing technologies for better performance rather than coming up with totally new technologies.

In terms of emerging technology, more powerful tools are being developed to collect data and characterize the reservoirs, and also tools that better capture the dynamics of the reservoir by including more significant details into the reservoir model, while still delivering results within a reasonable time frame. There are also signs of moving toward more environment-friendly approaches in the oil industry.

I would suggest that the skill sets and qualities required to seek a career in the R&D sector include good understanding of fundamental sciences, i.e., physics, mathematics, chemistry, etc. (not necessarily all together); this is a key requirement. Being able to cope under pressure, self-evaluation, patience, good communication skills, as well as paying attention to details are also qualities which are needed to make a good researcher.


Geochemist, ConocoPhillips Subsurface Technology

I find research incredibly rewarding and satisfying, especially within a large company where it will be possible to actually test my ideas in the field, and potentially have an impact on many other parts of the company. What I enjoy most about my job is meeting all the different experts and personalities in a large multinational corporation. I am always learning something new about how all the different jobs fit together to make the company function.

I am comfortable crossing disciplinary boundaries, and happiest when my work is a mix and match of a variety of prefixes (geo-, paleo-, micro-) and suffixes (chemistry, oceanography, biology). My PhD funding at Pennsylvania State University (Department of Geosciences) came from a National Science Foundation Integrated Graduate Education and Research Traineeship program, which valued interdisciplinary research. In the first semester, we rotated between geology, geochemistry, microbiology, and engineering laboratories to learn the basic analytical tools available across many fields, which we could then use in our research projects.

“I find research incredibly rewarding and satisfying, especially within a large company where it will be possible to acutally test my ideas in the field.”

I received my BA in biology from Oberlin College, and proceeded to Austin, Texas to work for AmeriCorps, spending a year helping homeless children with math and literacy. I then entered a master’s degree program at the University of Texas to work on the paleobiology of the Capitan Reef, and moved to molecular-level paleo-oceanography and organic geochemistry for my dissertation work at Penn State University. After a post-doctoral stint, I found my home as a geochemist in Subsurface Technology in the Basin and Sedimentary Systems group at ConocoPhillips.

Part of my current research at ConocoPhillips includes finding ways to harness new biotechnologies to enhance tertiary oil recovery, sometimes termed microbial enhanced oil recovery, MEOR, or microbial improved oil recovery, MIOR. Like all forms of tertiary oil recovery, the goal is to increase recovery of residual oil and stretch the life and efficiency of existing oil fields. MEOR in particular has low implementation costs, and does not usually require any additional capital investment in existing waterflood fields. I have been involved in this work since my first day on the job; my current biotechnology supervisor pushed a very exciting bit of data across his desk during my interview, and I was hooked. I am also able to continue working on other areas of interest, such as paleo-oceanography, which is directly related to source-rock deposition and properties.

Regarding my role models in R&D, I remember going to an industry mixer at Penn State and being awed by several women including one from Bell Labs, who clearly had the best of all worlds, a stimulating, exciting laboratory and research environment, and a well-adjusted personal life. It was the first time I realized that science outside of academia could be very satisfying. Among the younger ranks in R&D, there seems to be a higher percentage of women than before. However, there is still not a huge number of women mentors at the highest levels. It seems likely that this will improve over the next decade, giving the younger generations a better view of their potential future.

My advice to young female scientists who would like to have a career in R&D is to be brave, and pursue what you enjoy doing.



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