The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way students and professionals live, work and study.
With less time spent socializing and commuting, geoscientists in industry and academia are taking advantage of the time to connect to webinars that enable them to improve their technical skills from the comfort of their own home.
These new habits have provided an opportunity for the Visiting Geoscientist Program, an initiative funded by the AAPG Foundation connecting industry professionals with geoscience students throughout the world.
As its name implies, the Visiting Geoscientist Program traditionally features in-person talks delivered by professionals visiting university campuses. Faced with public health concerns, travel restrictions and university closures related to COVID-19, in March 2020, the AAPG Global Visiting Geoscientist Committee made the decision to suspend all in-person visits until further notice.
Finding New Strategies
Stopping in-person visits led to a new start for visiting geoscientists and students in AAPG’s Latin America and Caribbean Region.
The region has one of AAPG’s most active VG programs, with 58 visits conducted and 2,105 students impacted during fiscal year 2019.
On March 31, the committee launched “Tuesday Talks,” a weekly webinar series featuring technical lectures and interactive Q&A sessions with the region’s visiting geoscientists. Talks cover a range of topics and are offered in English, Spanish and Portuguese.
The first lecture, given in Spanish by Alejandro Mora on petroleum systems in Colombia, drew 290 participants from 14 countries.
Vitor Abreu and Juan Carlos Llinás delivered their talks twice, first in English and then in Spanish. Flavio Feijó gave talks in English and Portuguese.
In April and May, Tuesday Talks lectures drew more than 2,500 unique viewers in 41 countries, with an average participation of 193 people connected per session.
Mauricio Guizada, AAPG LACR VGP coordinator since 2018, described Tuesday Talks as “an inevitable consequence of the situation we are all going through.”
Guizada helped to develop the strategy along with AAPG LACR staff and four subregion coordinators that work with universities and lecturers in the Caribbean, Brazil, Northern Spanish America and Southern Spanish America.
“Finding ways to reach the majority of the student chapters in the region and promoting the program in new universities has always been an objective of our team,” he said, “Though virtual visits were already part of our strategy, now they are our primary tool to contribute to the professional development of the region.”
Opportunities for Students
Saeed Khan, VGP subregion coordinator for the Caribbean countries, described the Tuesday Talks initiative as an “amazing opportunity” to share the experience and knowledge of LACR VGs beyond the region.
“The series gives our VGs an opportunity to share while allowing students from around the world, not only our region, to learn about different aspects of the oil and gas industry,” he said.
Khan, currently pursing his master’s in geoscience at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine in Trinidad, connected to several Tuesday Talk sessions himself.
“I decided to participate because it offered something different to my day. It gave me an opportunity to learn about an area of study that I am not very familiar with and diversify my routine,” he said.
Most of Khan’s research focuses on clastic sedimentology, so he appreciated at the opportunity to learn about carbonate plays. In addition to the mental change of pace, Khan also welcomed the opportunity to change his physical location while listening to Tuesday Talks.
“My experience was very pleasant, simple, effortless, and most importantly enjoyable and knowledgeable. I have accessed both the WebEx and Zoom apps on my phone which makes it very easy to connect to the talks – literally by the tap of the screen – and I can listen in from wherever I am most comfortable. I think it works best for me as I don’t have to be behind my laptop screen as I am for most of my day,” he said.
Edgar David Cadena Martínez, tenth semester geology student at the Escuela Politécnica Nacional in Quito, connected to Alejandro Mora’s talk.
“I was interested in how the speaker is doing his work. I would like to put it in practice when I get a job,” he said. Cadena, currently working from home as an intern for Halliburton, said he appreciated learning about how to use seismic data to improve interpretation of petroleum basins.
Cadena said he plans to participate in future Tuesday Talks, which he finds beneficial to students like himself.
“They keep students active and interested in topics related to petroleum geology,” he said.
Connections with In-Person Visits
While some students connect for the topics, others follow the lecturers.
Nicolas Cordoba, tenth semester student at the Universidad Industrial de Santander in Bucaramanga, Colombia, connected to VG Edith Wilson’s talk because he had heard her speak in person when she visited his university in December 2019.
“This talk caught my attention, and I wanted to hear her again and refresh the things that I learned before,” he said.
Cordoba said Wilson helped him understand the way of thinking involved in unconventional reservoir characterization.
“It’s not too different from the conventional perspective; it basically is applying physical principles to the problems that we face.”
Cordoba said he hopes the Tuesday Talks series will continue even when in-person visits resume.
“Sometimes the VG program is limited because the travel limits of the speakers or the number of speakers that schools can receive per year. Activities like Tuesday talks facilitate the democracy of knowledge because more people can have access, and they help us to grow as a community of geoscientists,” he said.
Benefits for Lecturers
Edith Wilson, owner of Rock Whisperer LLC and president of AAPG’s Energy Minerals Division, met Cordoba during her visit to Colombia in December. When LACR leadership contacted her about participating in Tuesday Talks, she said, she jumped at the chance to deliver a lecture for the region again.
“Anything for my friends in LACR! They are so well organized, and a great audience – wonderful interaction and discussion,” she said.
Wilson said that, while she missed the energy in the room that accompanies in-person talks, she recognizes that virtual talks provide distinct advantages.
“Virtual talks provide phenomenal flexibility, especially when recorded, and they give speakers the opportunity to reach out and develop a relationship after the lecture through social media,” she said, noting that she received 20 LinkedIn requests from geologists and geology students in the two weeks following the talk.
Mora, senior exploration geologist at HOCOL in Bogota, said March 31 was the first time he had delivered a talk virtually, so the experience served as a test. He was pleased with the experience and hopes to give more virtual lecturers and even short courses in the future.
“I would say that personal lectures are very difficult to replace as an effective way of sharing information,” he said, “However, in spite of the limitations that virtual resources may have, such as a minimum of technology requirements and more limited interactions, they become very powerful and necessary tools in situations like the one we are currently experiencing, by effectively replacing most classes and lectures, and keeping people connected.”
Impact Beyond the Numbers
Mora agreed that virtual talks provide the opportunity to impact students and universities in hard-to-reach places and to increase the number of participants.
He also identified another advantage of virtual talks: the chance to include individuals from differing points of view who would never attend a petroleum-related talk in person.
“By reaching wider audiences, virtual resources also contribute to confront disinformation in younger generations, especially in these times when the oil industry has such a strong opposition and has become rather unpopular,” he said.
Mora also noted that, in addition to providing information, the talks help to expand collaboration.
“Virtual talks also allow participants to expand their networks, something that could result in interesting and fruitful industry and academic collaborations.”
Dallas Dunlap, VGP global co-chair for sections and researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, agreed.
“The VGP is by no means a one-way street. The relationships built within this program – either between student-professional, university program-professional, or between the visiting professionals – are critical as the industry continues to evolve rapidly in this new energy economy. The collaborative approaches and research directions found in these visits/lectures will give all involved new ideas, tools and energy to enhance our careers moving forward,” said Dunlap.
The lecturers are not the only professionals benefitting from Tuesday Talks. Industry professionals from all career stages are logging in to keep their skills sharp during their time at home.
Diego Venegas, geologist and 18-year industry veteran, connected to the Tuesday Talk delivered by his colleague Juan Carlos Llinás of Ecopetrol on April 14. Venegas found out about the talk through a WhatsApp message sent by co-workers.
Venegas currently works with Ecopetrol’s seismic acquisition and processing team and appreciated the opportunity to connect to the talk while working at home.
“It’s very important to be current, and the presentation was made by a prestigious geologist,” he said.
Venegas said he is working harder than ever from his home office, so participating in Tuesday Talks provides a nice change of pace.
“After interpreting seismic all day, it’s relaxing” he said. “I can also learn.”
Andrea López-Vega, geologist at Total E&P Bolivie and president of the AAPG Young Professionals Bolivia Chapter, said Tuesday Talks provide great benefits to early career professionals.
“Even though VGP talks are aimed at students, as YPs we also can take advantage of these talks as they are delivered by senior professionals who teach us their experiences throughout their career,” she said.
López-Vega said the webinar series has taken the VG program to the next level.
“We are used to seeing VGP as an in-person program, and now thanks to technology it has been upgraded. Tuesday Talks is what was missing for connecting experts with the geoscientists from around the world,” she said.
Keeping the Program Going
Piotr Krzywiec, VGP co-chair for regions and associate professor at the Polish Academy of Sciences, said Tuesday Talks can help the Visiting Geoscientist Program advance its mission worldwide.
“VGP provides a vital link between industry and students of geosciences. It is a vehicle that allows experienced experts from industry and academia to meet with students and to provide them with personal perspective on either general problems related to oil and gas industry or to share knowledge and experience regarding the latest exploration techniques,” he said.
“COVID-19 already forced AAPG leadership to re-think strategies and come up with ‘survival kits’ for many aspects of Association activities, including VGP,” he added. “I’m sure that some of these events, maybe in modified form, will continue to be used in more distant future, even after the pandemic ends.”
The LACR VGP Committee has a Tuesday Talk scheduled every Tuesday through June 30, the end of AAPG’s fiscal year.
Khan said he is committed to helping Tuesday Talks continue into the future.
“I think it is a very special initiative and I would hope that post COVID-19 we continue to have lectures like this,” he said. “We hope to keep connecting and sharing with a large geoscience community.”
Guizada said the committee has taken note of both participant and lecturer interest in virtual lectures available long term.
“We hope to expand remote activities” he said. “One thing that we are sure of is that virtual conferences will have a new degree of priority for the committee.
Guizada said that launching Tuesday Talks has been a very memorable experience for him and fellow committee members.
“There have been a variety of feelings, he said.” Enthusiasm to improve the program, surprise to see the magnitude of participation and pride in being part of a committee that makes all this possible.”
Dunlap said he sees Tuesday Talks as a best practice, and he is working to support similar webinars in other parts of the world.
“While COVID-19 has temporarily limited our ability to visit in-person, the success of the LACR virtual lecture series has shown us that new communication technologies have and will allow us to connect in ways that make a profound difference in our professional lives at a time we most need it,” he said.
To see a Tuesday Talks calendar and listing of other LACR virtual and in-person initiatives visit LatinAmerica.AAPG.org.