Women Making Their Mark

An Eye for Mentoring

The state of geology is as varied as the individual experiences of those who practice the science. A cross section of contemporary geoscientists, though, not only chronicles how far the industry has come, it serves as a gauge to indicate where it might be going.

Meet some leading geologists. They echo concerns about filling the eminent work force gap expected within the next 10 years.

They share the mutual objectives of mentoring, equity and giving back to the industry.

Most importantly, they foster a passion for their science and great expectations for its future.

Robbie Gries
president and owner, Priority Oil & Gas, Denver.

When cleaning and cooking are a way of life beginning at age four, hard work is ingrained.

"I come from a very, very poor family where hard work was the only thing you had to get ahead," says Gries, a former AAPG president. "At Texaco, my bosses would comment, ‘Oh, you're already finished with that?' because I would just pour myself into my work. I just expected that everybody did it that way."

When Gries joined Texaco's Denver office in 1973 the playing field was largely level, but not on all fronts. Among the struggles was a battle with management to gain equal access to do wellsite work. For the most part, though, she found ample support in the corporate world and from her peers.

"They encouraged me," Gries recalls. "They taught me about joining professional societies, giving back to your profession and publishing. All these things were encouraged by my male colleagues, and really are what put me on the right track to a successful career."

Encouragement alone did not propel Gries's career. Like her colleagues, she stepped out in faith, launching her own company after years with Texaco and smaller independents.

"It was just an opportunity that presented itself," she said. "I've always had the courage to take a risk.

"I can't imagine many more things in life that would have given me as much pleasure, fun, mental stimulation and opportunity to know people around the world, and the opportunity to look at rocks around the world," she added. "There aren't that many careers that give you that. This one's the greatest."

Marjorie Chan
professor and department chair, University of Utah, Salt Lake City.

Chan's formative years were replete with visually powerful role models. After walking away from a prearranged marriage, Chan's grandmother immigrated to the United States with her pastor husband, who died during the Depression and left the young woman virtually alone with five children to raise. Chan's father parlayed his athletic talent into a football scholarship at Stanford University and went on to earn his Ph.D. in biology.

"One of the biggest obstacles to encouraging girls to study science is making parents aware that their daughters can have a career in science," Chan explained. "One thing that makes a big difference is getting the right kind of encouragement at home."

While the gender split may be 50/50 in the audience of Chan's class at the University of Utah, it is currently a much less equitable balance down the pipeline in industry retention.

Likewise, some of the industry's most prominent training organizations have a striking lack of diversity.

"I am training students that will end up going into the industry, and I need to make sure that they are going into an environment that is going to accept them as equals and as good scientists that can contribute," she said. "So I don't want the wrong signals to be sent, because that means that people are going to go somewhere else, into some other science.

"The industry owes it to itself to do everything it can to move forward in progressive ways," she said. "That's what I'm hoping we can help through an active and involved (AAPG) membership."

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The state of geology is as varied as the individual experiences of those who practice the science. A cross section of contemporary geoscientists, though, not only chronicles how far the industry has come, it serves as a gauge to indicate where it might be going.

Meet some leading geologists. They echo concerns about filling the eminent work force gap expected within the next 10 years.

They share the mutual objectives of mentoring, equity and giving back to the industry.

Most importantly, they foster a passion for their science and great expectations for its future.

Robbie Gries
president and owner, Priority Oil & Gas, Denver.

When cleaning and cooking are a way of life beginning at age four, hard work is ingrained.

"I come from a very, very poor family where hard work was the only thing you had to get ahead," says Gries, a former AAPG president. "At Texaco, my bosses would comment, ‘Oh, you're already finished with that?' because I would just pour myself into my work. I just expected that everybody did it that way."

When Gries joined Texaco's Denver office in 1973 the playing field was largely level, but not on all fronts. Among the struggles was a battle with management to gain equal access to do wellsite work. For the most part, though, she found ample support in the corporate world and from her peers.

"They encouraged me," Gries recalls. "They taught me about joining professional societies, giving back to your profession and publishing. All these things were encouraged by my male colleagues, and really are what put me on the right track to a successful career."

Encouragement alone did not propel Gries's career. Like her colleagues, she stepped out in faith, launching her own company after years with Texaco and smaller independents.

"It was just an opportunity that presented itself," she said. "I've always had the courage to take a risk.

"I can't imagine many more things in life that would have given me as much pleasure, fun, mental stimulation and opportunity to know people around the world, and the opportunity to look at rocks around the world," she added. "There aren't that many careers that give you that. This one's the greatest."

Marjorie Chan
professor and department chair, University of Utah, Salt Lake City.

Chan's formative years were replete with visually powerful role models. After walking away from a prearranged marriage, Chan's grandmother immigrated to the United States with her pastor husband, who died during the Depression and left the young woman virtually alone with five children to raise. Chan's father parlayed his athletic talent into a football scholarship at Stanford University and went on to earn his Ph.D. in biology.

"One of the biggest obstacles to encouraging girls to study science is making parents aware that their daughters can have a career in science," Chan explained. "One thing that makes a big difference is getting the right kind of encouragement at home."

While the gender split may be 50/50 in the audience of Chan's class at the University of Utah, it is currently a much less equitable balance down the pipeline in industry retention.

Likewise, some of the industry's most prominent training organizations have a striking lack of diversity.

"I am training students that will end up going into the industry, and I need to make sure that they are going into an environment that is going to accept them as equals and as good scientists that can contribute," she said. "So I don't want the wrong signals to be sent, because that means that people are going to go somewhere else, into some other science.

"The industry owes it to itself to do everything it can to move forward in progressive ways," she said. "That's what I'm hoping we can help through an active and involved (AAPG) membership."

Evelyn Medvin
vice president, Core Laboratories, Houston.

A giant step westward from the Bronx took Medvin to the heart of Oklahoma's Green Country and eventually to Tulsa's Edison High School, where a new earth sciences teacher kindled a passion for geology.

"She sparked something in many of us," Evelyn recalled.

The experience was so positive that a group of 20-some students petitioned the school to add a second year of earth sciences -- and won. Cities Service Oil Co. recognized the potential to nurture the burgeoning enthusiasm, and during Evelyn's senior year, initiated an Explorer Post in geology open to all high school students.

A Cities-sponsored weeklong trip to the Grand Canyon the following summer introduced the self-proclaimed "rock geeks" to ice caves, volcano flows and a geologist from Cities' Denver office.

"When I was trying to figure out what to major in during college, my parents said, ‘We don't know any other high school student that gets up at 6 or 7 a.m. on a weekend morning to go on a field trip.'

"So they really pushed me."

While still an undergraduate at the University of Oklahoma, Medvin had summer jobs with Cities Service and tackled remote sensing and seismic interpretation mapping. Full-time assignments for Cities (later bought by Occidental Petroleum) included work in several Latin American countries -- including the Cano Limon discovery in Colombia -- the Far East and Gulf Coast.

A family decision to relocate to Houston provided her an opportunity to move to the service side of geology, and ultimately into business development.

"I have had wonderful experiences in my 20-plus year career."

Brenda Beitler Bowen
post doctorate research assistant, Central Michigan University, Mount Pleasant, Mich.; visiting professional Purdue University (assistant professor, fall 2007).

In a career that has traversed every continent except Antarctica, Bowen's repertoire also has spanned millennia in just a few years. As a doctoral student, she studied the fluid flow of the 200 million-year-old Red Rocks in southern Utah. Today's post-doctorate work focuses on the interaction of fluids and sedimentary rocks in southern Australia's hyper-saline acid lakes where red sediments currently form.

"Most places where you have water like that, it is in acid-mine drainage or something where humans have influenced the environment," she explained. "But here, it is just natural."

The two field sites also share hematite creation similarities and are used in comparison studies of the planet Mars, using information gathered by the rover.

"There's been no shortage of opportunities," Bowen reflects, who quickly adds that parity fades as one continues up the academic ladder.

"I did my undergraduate work at UC-Santa Cruz," she said. "There were a lot of women students and a lot of women faculty. But as I continued, we are definitely in the minority. Of the earth sciences faculty at Purdue, 47 are males and five are females, and this is a department that is very supportive of women."

Mary Anne Holmes and Suzanne O'Connell documented the disparity of female representation in post-doctorate faculty in their study, "The Status of Women in Geoscience Academia: Data and Perceptions." Although the number of women earning upper-level degrees has steadily increased over the last 10 years, representation in the assistant professor positions has not increased since 1996, according to the study.

The percentage of women earning bachelor's and master's degrees in the geosciences is estimated at roughly 40 percent; doctorate level at 30 percent and assistant professorships at 21 percent.

Deborah Sacrey
president, Auburn Energy, Houston

Sacrey in 1976 was midway into her master's program as the University of Oklahoma when Gulf Oil hired her as a junior geologist. She learned how to interpret field data and started working in geophysics, and then progressed in her career moving on to small, independent ventures.

Prospects dimmed considerably in the next decade. The Penn Square bank fiasco took down a host of ventures, including the one that employed her. It was the beginning of a rough patch for the petroleum sector (see January EXPLORER). Jobs were scarce.

"I was a Kelly Girl for a while because at least I could type when no one else could find a job, and I always drafted," she recalled. "You always use the basics that you learn from the get-go and try to find ways to make them work for you later in life.

"I saw a lot of guys in the ‘80s who got laid off and refused to use the skill sets that they had learned in the oil industry to help them adapt to other industries," she said. "I was bound and determined to stay in the oil industry and was going to use the skills that I had, regardless of what level it put me, whether it was secretarial, draftsman or geotech -- to survive and learn."

A few years later, Sacrey was one of 600 candidates who applied for a job in the Arkoma Basin where she had worked previously for 10 years. She was one of about 30 called in for an interview and hired on the spot.

By 1990, she had formed Auburn Energy specializing in 2-D and 3-D geological and geophysical interpretation. Numerous leadership roles followed, including serving as the first woman to be national president of the Society of Independent Professional Earth Scientists and the first female president of AAPG's Division of Professional Affairs, a post she currently holds.

"I would encourage more women to get out there and understand how much fun it can be to be a scientist."

Jessica Moore Ali-Adeeb
geologist, Petroleum Systems International, Salt Lake City

Students in Salt Lake City's economically challenged districts did not know of the battle with blood clots that nearly took the life of Ali-Abeeb, weeks into her marriage and a year before finishing her undergraduate degree. They just saw a grad student volunteering in their classroom, explaining how to make college a reality.

"It suddenly became this world that they can actually be part of," Ali-Abeeb recalled. "Their horizons just increased infinitely. That was so rewarding."

Trained in sedimentology and stratigraphy, Ali-Abeeb broadened her own skill set with hands-on carbonate experience as an intern with BP on Alaska's North Slope. She will log another internship this summer for Chevron in San Ramon. In the meantime, the former AWG board member is working on the Utah Covenant Field discovery for a small consulting firm and entertaining standing offers for full-time employment as a geologist.

"If you want to be successful, whether you're male or female, you've always got to reach beyond expectations," said the recipient of 14 academic awards and scholarships. "In our generation, people push perhaps a little too hard. We have got to find the balance between work life and real life.

"The family issue potentially becomes a problem in the eyes of the employer," Jessica adds. "I think most people understand the difficulty in balancing the traditional female role in the family with a career. I have been told by males in the industry that this may, therefore, cause some hesitation in promoting women to management positions with more responsibility.

"The biggest concern of mine with respect to women in geosceince is that the pendulum of feminism swings periodically in a negative direction," she said. "When women succeed now in landing that great job with a successful company, there are some who try to pin our success on (fulfilling) company stats. This really undermines the accomplishments and hard work we have undertaken."

Susan Cunningham
senior vice president, exploration and corporate reserves, Noble Energy, Houston

For Cunningham, the 1980s mantra of "Dressing for Success" included an invisible pair of blinders. The Toronto native consciously turned a blind eye to career obstacles.

"Obviously, I was aware of the environment and remember feeling like I was swimming upstream a bit," Cunningham recounted. "But I remember thinking, ‘I'm going to be blind to any of those issues. I will prove my competence, and that will be enough.' That was my goal. I purposely made sure I didn't have a chip on my shoulder and if I started to feel one, I switched it off."

Through a healthy blend of skill, self-confidence and employment with a company recognized for its gender parity, Cunningham advanced from a geologist in the Alberta Basin to being the first woman to head an overseas office for Amoco.

Today, much of her energy is focused on issues that will face the next generation.

"The development of younger people has become a priority for me," she said. "About five years ago, I really started to get concerned about the growing gap in geologists. I would like to believe that the industry has learned from its knee-jerk reactions of layoff, hire, layoff, hire. It was unhealthy and now we are reaping the rewards of that mentality with a huge deficit of work force with 10 to 15 years of experience.

"We're also starting to gain an understanding that we have a responsibility to the earth," she continued. "This is an earth science. I think the oil and gas industry, businesswise, will be forced to move in that direction. But I just think it's the right thing to do as human beings and geoscientists.

"I would like us to get more aggressive in that regard."

Sherilyn Williams Stroud
Geo Team leader, Midland Valley Exploration.

An indomitable entrepreneurial drive was the model to which Sherilyn Williams Stroud most closely identified growing up in St. Louis. A school teacher, Stroud's mother has continually pursued a passion for small business ventures.

"My mother has always been the kind of person who goes out and gets what she wants," Stroud said. "She has a bunch of little businesses she's always starting. She's not always successful, but she's always gung-ho."

A cartographic specialist for a mapping agency, Mr. Williams' assignments were often classified and, therefore, not greatly discussed around the dinner table. Ironically, it was Sherilyn's father whose line of work is most closely aligned to her own; she became intrigued with geology as a synthesis of all the earth sciences and the picture it paints of how the world fits together.

While a student at the University of Seattle, though, it was her mother's confidence that she mirrored in finding her first job as a geologist.

"The USGS (U.S. Geological Survey) office was just down the street," he said. I walked in and said, ‘Do you have any jobs for students?'

"I think the manager was so impressed that I just walked in like that. He said, ‘Yeah, come back tomorrow.'"

That chutzpa served the student scientist well as she continued her education in Johns Hopkins' highly competitive grad school where she specialized in the deformation of evaporates. She returned to the USGS, this time for 10 years in Denver followed by a six-year stint with Texaco in Houston.

Scotland is her home today, where she leads a team from Midland Valley Exploration, a software company specializing in products that analyze geological interpretations.

In the process of distinguishing herself with her craft, she often stood out among her peers.

"Because of the things I chose to do, I was usually either the only black person or the only woman in the room," she said. "It's not like that at Midland Valley now. We have more female geologists than we have men. It just happened that those were the people who had the background and the extra skills and the drive that we were looking for."

While the visual difference may have been striking at times, the impact of Stroud's career has gone much further than skin deep.

"One woman who was an intern at a major oil company saw me give a presentation and told me that she looked at me and said, ‘Well you know, I can do that.' She went back to school and got her Ph.D.

"It's those kinds of things where I have an impact that I value, and I usually don't even know about," she said. "It really is important for women and for minorities to see that somebody like them is in this field. Otherwise, they might not choose it."

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