Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Driving Progress

It's pretty amazing to work on a project that is complex and frontier for its field. At the beginning, you don't realize what the heck you're getting into, then you're overwhelmed by how much you don't understand. At that point you seek understanding and are forced to deconstruct the problem into manageable pieces - plowing through the aspects you are comfortable with and tackling the ones you aren't. As the process continues, your understanding evolves, the pieces start to come together and then voila, the picture is clear and the project comes to completion.

Ha. I wish it were as easy a progression as that, although in a nutshell that pretty much describes what I've found to be true. Sometimes there are pieces that never fit. Those pieces might not fit because they are misunderstood, or they may not fit because the rest of the puzzle is screwed up somehow. Luck might be the only thing that allows you to differentiate; although you'd hope that a bit of education and networking could save you. Sometimes there are difficult lessons to learn along the way - perhaps related to technical aspects of the project, or perhaps related to soft skills - like communication and management. I'd hope that with every project there is a lesson learned...if not, I'd take that to be a sign it's time to move on to something else.

In the end, I think progress is driven by asking the right questions, recognizing what is understood and what is uncertain. Being able to throw stones at an idea to see how well it stands up to criticism and learning how to defend your ideas are essential skills if you are looking for success; skills that require professionalism, tact, and sometimes a pretty thick skin.

That's what I've witnessed so far, anyway. I wonder how the pieces of my project will come together?

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Why I Became a Geologist

There are certain experiences in my youth, looking back, that most definitely drove me towards the earth sciences. First, my father is an engineer - petroleum engineer, to be exact. I'm sure that his scientific and engineering tendencies influenced my own, although he rarely talked of his work at home. When I'd ask him about what he did, he'd always reply, "I'm a fortune teller." Chemistry sets and science projects were things he was constantly putting in front of me. I was interested, to a point, mostly out of curiosity. I never considered myself passionate about those things.

I did love to collect things. I'd collect rocks, but at that time it was more because of the look or feel of the rock not at all because of my understanding (or lack thereof) about its origin. I remember finding a large, smooth river rock that was strangely out of place amongst all the others and I held on to that rock for months. It would sit on the porch with me while I blew bubbles. Sometimes I felt like it talked to me (should I admit that?). It was a magic rock to me. I collected other things too. Insects, were my favorite. Butterflies, crickets, dragonflies, wasps, bees, spiders. I had a small little cigar box that I'd keep them in, with plans to one day formally identify each species and mount them. I had enough dragonflies and butterflies to see differences among them. I never quite got there with a mounted collection, but I sure had fun getting all my specimens together. My absolute favorite insects were the cicadas, who'd molt on the pine trees in my neighborhood. I was fascinated by these gentle, buggy-eyed, big-winged critters. Thus, began my fascination with nature. (Photo courtesy of Adam Fleishman, http://www.cicadamania.com/cicadas/2006/08/26/apache-cicada/).

My dad would take us on vacations, I realized later these were always scheduled around various annual industry conventions, where we'd go camping, hiking, and takes tours of historical sites. We spent a week in Yellowstone. I saw Old Faithful and held my breath through Geyser National Park. We spent two weeks driving through Mexico, from the northern Texas border all the way down to the Yucatan Peninsula and back. We climbed and explored every public pyramid around. We learned of the ancient civilizations and the cultures of Mexico. Experiences like these, while I didn't recognize the geologic or full historical significance, incited an interest in me and encouraged me to want to learn, explore, and enjoy what lay beyond my front yard.

In school I enjoyed most subjects. Social studies and history were my least favorite, but I did ok. English and science seemed to be my strengths. And although I'm not one of those math-in-my-head-on-the-fly types, I did alright in it. I joined student council, I played in the band, and participated in several other extra-curricular activities. The Ecology Club, my senior year, worked to establish one of the inter-building areas as an outdoor oasis of flowers and fountains (it was previously a neglected, weed-ridden eyesore that everyone walked by everyday). I was involved in recycling projects and other community educational programs through the various activities in school.

When it was time to choose a college and a major, I was kind of undecided. I leaned towards the sciences because I knew the job prospects would be good. I wanted to do something that was environmentally-focused, but didn't really know what that would translate into when it came to a job. I decided on Environmental Engineering. (I told you my dad's engineering qualities were an influence!) At the time, there weren't too many schools offering Environmental Engineering degrees, so I settled for Civil Engineering with the Environmental specialty. I applied to
the University of Texas at Austin (my dad's alma-mater), was accepted into the program and prepared for dorm life away from home. That's kind of when things took an unexpected twist.

My boyfriend of a year didn't want me to leave town, saying a long distance relationship just wasn't his thing. He was my thing, though, and I ultimately chose to skip the UT program and stay in Houston. I made my decision fairly last-minute and ended up with an application into our local community college. I took four semesters at San Jacinto Community College, knocking out all the basic english, history, economics, and a few electives. It was there that I truly discovered geology.

I was listed as a Pre-Engineering major on the San Jac records and I was scouring the list of available electives to add as transferable credits for a UH program. There sat geology...in black and white...staring up at me from the course listing. Physical Geology with Kristi Higginbotham was my first formal geology class. My initial thoughts, "oh yeah, we're going to learn about rocks" -- with a bit of sarcasm. Wow, was I ignorant! We went on field trips, we examined rock and mineral samples, we discussed the physical processes of the Earth. I found that it was easy for me and I enjoyed it. I never understood why some people in the class struggled with the rock and mineral identifications. The classroom samples were so textbook and the defining characterstics of cleavage planes, hardness, streak, and others made it fairly simple to identify. Of all the other classes I was taking and had taken, this class was the first that seemed truly effortless and exciting.

Ms. Higginbotham used the next semester to experiment with an Environmental Geology course. My class was her first to undergo the program and helped her to establish a lesson plan that she could use for future classes. The experience was fun and our tight-knit class did a lot of things together. We spent part of the class learning about the local EPA superfund site (the Brio Site) and got to know the full history of what occurred, the impact to the neighborhood and the politics that were involved with cleaning up the mess (that was back in 1996, or so). We also organized an extra-curricular group we called E.G.O. (Environmental Geology Organization). We did a lot of things that year that further encouraged us to be involved in our communities and to understand the importance of geology.

When it came time to transfer to the University of Houston, I had to decide what major to focus on. I could no longer skate through with Pre-Engineering tagged on to my file. UH didn't seem like the place for me to pursue Civil Engineering with an Environmental specialty. Geology was calling to me. I met with the counselor in the Geoscience Department (now called the Department of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences) and realized that I could easily get a double major in Geology and Geophysics, for the price of a few extra math classes. Well, sign me up!

The range of geology classes offered by the university was fantastic and their field program was great (and still is - check out my earlier blog regarding field camps!). The classes were small and the groups were close. I have many friends from my time spent at UH. One afternoon, while studying in the mineral lab, an upperclass student came in asking if anyone would be interested in a part-time job working for a geoscience consulting group. The job would involve binding reports, preparing graphics for figures/maps, and other intro level and admin-type tasks. Several of my friends took the job. I interviewed, but ultimately chose to work on campus, as it was closer to home for me. I eventually, though, ended up at that same company with my friends working a job that payed well above minimum wage and gave me exposure to seismic data, deepwater sedimentary environments, salt tectonics and what it was like to work with professionals in the major and large independent oil and gas companies.

I've grown tremendously since my starting days at that company. Some consider it strange that I've been there for what is now going on 10 years. I suppose that is rather unusual in these days of what seems like 2-year term limits for most everyone else. But I've climbed the ranks from the newbie student assistant up to Project Manager, and grown in my technical and soft skills every step of the way. I've had the priviledge to work on some of the coolest frontier exploration projects with some of the coolest people.

Looking back, some have asked if I regret not going to UT or pursuing the engineering career. I can honestly say, 15 years later married to my high-school sweetheart with three beautiful girls and a successful professional career....NO WAY!

I love what I do, I love my family, and I still think those smooth river rocks are pretty magical.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Geology TX - new GIS app for the iPhone

Map image courtesy of the USGS

The iPhone app store, to me, is like a candy store and I'm a sweet-toothed candy fanatic given the keys to the candy vault.

Thanks to companies like Integrity Logic, we can have our paperless geologic maps customized and accessible through a few flicks of our fingertips. Integrity Logic recently released Geology TX, their second GIS-based application for the iPhone and iPod Touch platforms -- the first being Geology CA. While the app does not require access to a mobile network for it to work, having access is an added bonus -- the device's GPS capabilities can pinpoint where you are on the map in real time.

The application includes a number of data layers, including the USGS geologic map, outlines for state, county, and quadrangle boundaries, cities, roads, active mines/quarries, available K/Ar ages, active and ancient faults, and more. Like traditional GIS systems, the application allows the layers to be turned on/off in any combination.

I'm curious to hear some feedback regarding the app. If you happen to try it out, swing by and leave a comment!

Edit 8/16/09 - Swung by the App Store and noticed that Integrity Logic has released new maps for Geology NY. The application follows the concept of Geology CA and Geology TX, with interactive GIS map layers and geologic information for the state of New York. Now the east coast, west coast, and Gulf coasts are represented. Looking forward to filling in the gaps. 3 down, 47 more to go!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Fall into Opportunities

There are many things in the works for a busy Fall in the coming months. For those interested in getting more involved in the geo-community, there are many opportunities!

The Houston Geological Society (HGS) is gearing up for the 2009-2010 season with a full calendar of short courses, dinner and lunch meetings, and social events to boot. Check out their website (www.hgs.org) for event details and the full calendar. If you aren't already a member, consider joining for registration discounts and access to the printed or online version of their monthly Bulletin.

The HGS is teaming up with the Geophysical Society of Houston (GSH) for 2009 Geoscience Day. The event is scheduled for September 24, and is aimed towards young professionals entering into the oil & gas industry with less than 5 years of work experience. The program offers a range of presentations and demonstrations on "the life of an oilfield". Check out the HGS (www.hgs.org) or GSH (www.gshtx.org) websites for information, registration, and sponsorship opportunities. In addition, the planning committee welcomes interested volunteers to help with organizing the event. Send me a note or contact the committee chair via the previously mentioned websites for more info.

Mid-October is Earth Science Week (officially, October 11-17, 2009). Earth Science Week is an opportunity to promote scientific understanding of the Earth amongst the public and geoscience communities. This year's theme is "Understanding Climate". In the Houston area, the HGS often coordinates with the Houston Museum of Natural Science for a day of family fun to kick off the week. In addition, the celebration of Earth Science Week also means field trips open to the general public. Keep your eyes on the HGS website for details on this year's planned events! If you are not in the Houston area, check your local science museums and geo-societies for scheduled events and volunteer opportunities.

The University of Houston Geoscience Alumni Association (UHGAA) is organizing a fundraising gala to establish an endowment for their new summer field camp programs (see my previous post for more on this). The event will be held in October at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Please consider sponsoring a table, attending the gala, and supporting the UH field program for future students! If you are a UH alumn, the UHGAA welcomes participation in planning the event and helping to spread the word. A planning meeting is scheduled for Friday, August 14th. Send me a note for more information and to find out how you can help!

Plans are already underway for the Offshore Technology Conference 2010. Calls for abstracts are starting to make their way through the industry. Committees, such as The Next Wave planning committee, are already brainstorming session topics, keynote speakers, and program format for 2010. May comes quick!! A call for abstracts that recently came across my desk relates to a special technical session titled, "Applications of Multibeam Backscatter". The organizers are looking for case studies that illustrate the use and benefits of multibeam backscatter. If you want more info on the session let me know and I'll forward you the call for abstract information. If that particular topic is of no interest to you, never fear! There are many other technical sessions being organized for the OTC. Get your works together and present!! The OTC's official website is www.otcnet.org and it is diligently updated with all the latest and greatest information on the conference.

Speaking of conferences, the AAPG Annual Convention is planned for Houston in 2011. Hosted by the Houston Geological Society, there will be many opportunities (and needs!!) for volunteers. While it may seem ages away, there are many logistics involved with convention planning and all helping hands are welcome and appreciated! Contact the AAPG (www.aapg.org) or the HGS (www.hgs.org) if you are interested in lending your time or resources in preparation of the event.

I suppose I could go on forever. There are endless opportunities to get involved in the geo-community. You can attend and participate in events of all types. You can get behind the scenes and help in the planning by contributing your time, your experience, your enthusiasm, and your available resources. All the while you'll meet interesting people and build an experience base that will extend your social network, technical knowledge, and contribute towards developing your soft skills. Can't find an event that is interesting enough for you? Come up with an idea for what you'd like to see and present it to your local society. You will be surprised how enthusiastically an idea can translate to reality. It just depends on what you put into it!