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Most of us don’t need to look further than the station down the street when we want to locate some gas. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple for the companies that fuel our hectic modern lifestyles, which is why they employ Chief Geophysicists, the people who reconcile the business and scientific ends of the spectrum. In an industry that’s so intimately connected with our economy, our environment and virtually every other facet of our lives, it takes some real brain-power to keep everything running smoothly. 

The duties

While there are differences from company to company as to what the role of a Chief Geophysicist entails, generally, they oversee teams that assess where to drill for resources. “The first task of the geophysicist is to acquire data and evaluate land, determining if there’s potential for natural resource development,” explains Tom Sneddon, the Manager of Geoscience Affairs for the Association of Professional Engineers, Geologists and Geophysicists of Alberta (APEGGA).

Due to the large number of projects a company may be involved with at any given time, and the maturity of each project, each day is different from the last. “In one day, you might have an initial asset team meeting at the kick-off of a project, and later on another meeting might lead into a development program discussion dominated by an engineer looking for a more grainage pattern, followed by a meeting with yet another team that’s integrating data into a common mathematical model of what a reservoir would look like to see how a payzone will behave once extraction begins.”

Keeping up with the technology

In other companies, a Chief Geophysicist might not be as responsible for the technical aspects of the job. “I don’t personally do any work developing drilling locations,” says Herman Cooper, the Chief Geophysicist of Nexen Incorporated. “I’m more of an advisor or mentor, and I ensure technical excellence through one-on-one advice to personnel about their issues or problems on the job.” Keeping up with advancing technology in a complicated field is also key to staying competitive, according to Cooper. “I monitor external developments in geophysics to see if there’s anything happening in the industry that we should be aware of and utilizing.”

As far as the mental equipment required to do the job, it takes a special cast of mind. “Not everyone has the gearbox necessary to do a geophysical analysis,” confirms Sneddon. “A Geophysicist thinks on scales from interplanetary down to the centre of the earth, in terms of time and space, and how that varies depending on where you are on a sphere.” If that sounds a little cosmic, the data acquisition approach is anything but. “You have to think in terms of the mechanical and electrical properties of rock, and then come up with a strategy for how to extract information from how long it takes a seismic or electromagnetic wave to pass through the ground,” says Sneddon. “A large mind is required to be successful in this profession, and there’s a need to be nimble enough to think in multiple scales without getting lost, and that takes time to develop.”

Know your craft

Despite the obvious need for an academic background in geophysics, years of hard work are necessary to advance in the field to Chief Geophysicist. “I’ve been a practitioner in various aspects of the business,” agrees Cooper. “I’ve done data acquisition, processing and interpreting at different points in my career, and I’ve held supervisory and managerial positions.” Learning the craft is important, and only after a person moves from junior to intermediate to senior Geophysicist are they even considered for the role. “Seniors have ten years plus in the industry, and those are the people in demand,” says Sneddon. “Geophysicists are a rare breed — there’s a little over a thousand of us in Canada, and most of them are within a 15 minute walk of where I’m sitting. It takes a long time to develop advanced understanding of all aspects of the business, so you’ll find that people don’t really retire.”

In the later stages of a Geophysicist’s career, there’s a more pronounced need to consider the business aspect of the industry. “If you want to be a Chief Geophysicist, you need good financial and business acumen,” says Sneddon. “Most people these days collect an MBA at mid-career, enabling them to straight-line into the executive suite.” It’s the ability to integrate the various aspects of the industry -- the technical side with the business and organizational sides -- that serves the Chief Geophysicist well. “It’s a dynamic role with a lot of economic pressures as well as internal pressures,” confirms Sneddon. “This is a job you never fully understand, and every time you walk out onto the floor, you’re learning something new about the business and the science.”

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