With the rapid expansion of the Canadian oilpatch into international waters over the last decade, many native-born geophysicists have had the opportunity to travel and work around the world. Just as importantly, geophysicists from all points of the globe have had the chance to come to Calgary and practice their profession.
Although no statistics are kept on country of origin, a simple glance in the CSEG’s 2000 Membership Directory will confirm that the society’s make-up is truly international, with well over 10 percent of the membership originating on distant shores. But what motivates someone to move thousands of kilometres from their native land? What are their contributions to the profession in Canada? The RECORDER magazine asked a representative sample for their insights and impressions.
One facet that all international geophysicists have in common is a comprehensive professional background before they came to Canada.
Satinder Chopra works at Scott Pickford. His specialty is theoretical and applied work with coherence cube processing and inversion. Chopra was born in Shimla, the capital of Himachal Pradesh state in India. He attended Himachal Pradesh University, acquiring an M.Sc. in physics and a Masters of Philosophy (which is a prerequisite for teaching). He was working on his Ph.D. in Physics when he was hired by the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC), the national oil company of India, in 1984.
As a professional, Chopra’s first assignment was processing marine seismic data. He worked for three years in Delhi, before being transferred to ONGC HQ in Dehradun, in the foothills of the Himalayas. He worked there for 10 years, rising through the organization to become head of the management services group, at GEOPIC (Geodata Processing and Interpretation Center), the biggest computing facility of ONGC.
Xishuo Wang was born in Northeast China, in the Liaoning province. He attended the Xian University of Metallurgy and Construction, graduating in 1975 with the equivalent of a Civil Engineering degree. He worked for three years in the Tibet plateau before returning to school to obtain his Masters of Geophysics at Beijing’s China University of Science and Technology. After graduating in 1981, he worked for one year as a geophysical instructor at the State Seismological Bureau.
Carmen Dumitrescu was born in Constanta and attended the University of Bucharest. She graduated in 1981 with a Masters degree in Geology and Geophysics. She spent two years performing acquisition and processing of seismic at Prospectiuni, the national oil company, before joining the Department of Geomagnetism and Petrophysics at the Geological Survey of Romania. From 1983 to 1997, her responsibilities included developing software for gravity, magnetic and electromagnetic data processing and establishing a digital monitoring system at the geophysical observatory.
Vladimir Alexeev was born in Murmansk, on the shores of the Barents Sea. He attended the University of Moscow, graduating in 1978 with a Bachelor of Geology & Geophysics. Taking a job with the state oil company, he moved to the Far East, where he processed seismic data on Sakhalin Island for five years. In 1983, he moved back to Murmansk, which is the northern capital for oil and gas in Russia. He processed marine data for the next 14 years, until 1996.
Felicien Katigema was born in Uganda and attended Mukerere University in Kampala. He graduated with a BSc. in 1974 and began surface mapping for the Uganda Geological Survey.
Florian Romanescu was born in Ploiesti, the site of one of the oldest oil producing regions in Europe. He attended the University of Bucharest, graduating in 1984 with an M.Sc. degree in Geophysical and Geological Engineering - major Geophysics. He then joined IPGG, the national oil company, and attended a three-year program in which he was trained in the practical aspects of seismic acquisition, processing and interpretation.
Each geophysicist had a different reason for coming to Canada, however. “I had a good salary by Indian standards, and a good, cushy job,” says Chopra. “But I had achieved just about everything I set out to do in India, and I wanted to work internationally.” Several years earlier, a geophysicist from the University of Victoria had visited Dehradun, and Chopra had questioned him closely on the British Columbia capital. Also Brian Russell on a couple of his visits to India, inspired Chopra to visit Canada. In 1997, he decided to take a study leave from the ONGC and took up a scholarship at the U of V. After one year, however, he realized that a graduate student’s stipend was insufficient to support a family of four, and he sought work in Calgary.
For Alexeev, it was a matter of making ends meet. “Russia was having trouble paying salaries and carrying out exploration, and I had to make a decision about what to do,” he recalls. During his work in Murmansk, Alexeev had met an Edmontonian who had come over to do work for Amoco. “I asked about Canada, and he told me it had the same climate as Russia, but it was modern and had a huge oil and gas capital in Calgary — he said the prospects for me finding a job were good.” In 1996, Alexeev packed his bags and came over to check out opportunities.
Dumitrescu felt that the work in her home environment was too restrictive. Her first exposure to international opportunities occurred in 1991, when she received a fellowship to pursue a joint research project at the University of Edinburgh. “I met people from Greece, the States and Germany. I learned about professional opportunities in other countries.”
When she returned to Romania, however, she couldn’t help but compare the working experience in her homeland. “Infrastructure was poor, and research was a low priority. There was little money for computers or software. It was very frustrating.” By 1997, she decided it was time to search for work at an international posting and contacted the Canadian embassy. She and her husband (an electrical engineer specializing in computers and hardware) were granted a visa (landed immigrant). Along with their teenage son, they emigrated to Canada in 1997.
For Katigema, his choice to come to Canada was made by the vagaries of war, when civil strife under Idi Amin forced him to flee to England in 1974. While in England, he decided to advance his learning, and applied to several schools around the world, including the University of Western Ontario. UWO promised him a teaching scholarship, and he enrolled in the school in 1975.
In the early 1980s, the government of China was encouraging its brightest scientists to study abroad. “A researcher from Beijing visited the University of Alberta, and had learned that they were having a hard time getting graduate students,” says Wang. “I didn’t know anything about Canada except Dr. Norman Bethune.” Never-the-less, Wang applied and was accepted. He came to Edmonton in 1982.
For Romanescu, the decision to work abroad was fueled by a desire to tackle different types of geophysical problems. Most of Romania’s reservoirs are located in overthrust structural traps similar to those found in the foothills, and further complicated by salt diapirism. After six years of working these plays, the young felt the need for new challenges. “I had a mind to expand into international work.” In 1990, Florian accepted a job with Ikon Geoscience, a consultancy based in London. For the next four years, he worked as a senior geophysicist on a team which evaluated various basins for their oil and gas potential. This experience was invaluable, because Florian was exposed to a wide variety of geophysical techniques. While the work was extremely stimulating and challenging, Florian also needed to find the right environment for his young family. In 1994, when geophysicists from Canada mentioned that Calgary was a good place to raise a family and work in the industry, he decided to emigrate.
Not surprisingly, first impressions varied. “The cities were big and cold, and there were no people by comparison to the streets of Beijing, but the people were friendly and the University of Alberta was nice,” recalls Wang. “The courses were not difficult - the basic training is more rigorous in China - but the facilities were better, and I could sit in front of a computer and accomplish ten times more.”
“I was very happy going from a public company to a private company,” says Chopra. “People are more professional, and I am able to satisfy my instinct.”
“We came in summer, when it was warm and the people were nice,” recalls Dumitrescu. “I was happy from the beginning - it is a civilized place, like the one I dream about.”
“My first impression was that English was difficult to learn, and it was hard to find a job,” says Alexeev.
Regardless, once in Canada, each geophysicist set out to advance their careers. Chopra landed a job with a company that eventually became part of Scott-Pickford. In addition, he is an avid volunteer with the CSEG, currently production editor for the RECORDER magazine.
After extensive research with electromagnetic induction, Wang graduated with a PhD. in 1987. After a year of post-doctorate work, he reached a point where he had to decide whether to return to China or remain in Canada. “I had almost decided to go back, when I noticed a Christmas card from a fellow at Geo-X. I called, and discovered that they needed one more researcher, so I landed a job as a research scientist.”
The expatriate Romanian community helped Dumitrescu focus on the kinds of work available, and she decided to apply for a job in processing. She was soon hired by Veritas.
After searching for work throughout 1996, Alexeev eventually landed work with a Dutch marine data agency based in Halifax, and spent the next several years travelling around the world processing data onboard seismic ships. Finally, in 1999, he landed a full-time position with Scott-Pickford as a processor.
Romanescu arrived in Calgary in 1994 and opened an office for Paradigm Geophysical to supply support and services for their prestack depth migration package. He moved on to Veritas, in 2000, where he is a senior geophysicist with the advanced technologies group.
Upon graduation from the University of Western Ontario in 1977 with a Masters of Geophysics, Katigema worked for one winter in northern Saskatchewan before coming to Calgary and getting hired on with GSI as a seismic data processor. Over the course of the next two decades, he held numerous positions with Suncor, Petro-Canada, BP and Elan, before finally becoming an interpretation consultant for Petrovera, where he currently works.
Most of the geophysicists were struck by the differences between working in their native lands and Canada. “It’s more busy here, and I like to be busy,” says Alexeev. “It’s also much more comfortable to work here in terms of the people — they work together well here.”
“The profession in Canada is very technical and well prepared for challenges, with a lot of attention paid to details,” says Romanescu. “It is a good environment to practice the profession.”
All of the geophysicists think that the Canadian oilpatch benefits from their international brethren. “I think it’s an excellent contribution when you have geophysicists coming from different parts of the world, with experience in different basins,” says Chopra. “That’s the way we all learn.”
“International geophysicists contribute tremendously,” says Wang. “Most of us have already finished university and arrive well-prepared. Canada gets a good deal.”
“The Russian people have made a huge contribution to Canada and the US,” says Alexeev. “There is a large Russian community in Canada, and several dozen geophysicists in Calgary.”
“Quite often, international geophysicists moving into the Canadian oilpatch help create jobs,” says Romanescu, “and that’s valuable.”
Most are also happy with their personal lives. “Canada is a good place to live in,” says Chopra. “There is a large Indian population in the city, and the food and culture from our homeland is available.” His 15 year old daughter and 8-year old son are adapting to the Canadian way-of-life. “My daughter had a very vigorous education schedule in India, and she finds the schedule easier here. My son likes to ice skate and go to the Stampede. He and my daughter have a Canadian accent.”
“I know quite a few Romanians in Calgary, and there are probably over a dozen Romanian geophysicists, but my non-professional life is focused on our family, and my time is spent with them,” says Romanescu. “We go skating and watch sports. I do not understand American football - it seems the ref stops play whenever it’s getting interesting - but my son understands it, and likes it. We try to keep the language alive by talking to them in Romanian, but they answer back in English.”
“There is not a statutory holiday for the Chinese New Year, so I feel it every year,” says Wang. “But there is access to our native food - the people of Northeast China are the only ones who love sauerkraut.”
“Our family is happy here,” says Dumitrescu. “My husband has a job doing what he is trained to do, and my son plays football at high school.”
None of the geophysicists interviewed have encountered discrimination at their workplace. “If you’re consistent with good ideas and results and helping people - that’s what’s important to advancement,” says Romanescu.
Wang is concerned about general perceptions within certain segments of the population. Recently, he was disheartened when an elected MP made critical statements regarding immigrants. Although the MP was disciplined by the leader of his party, he got a different reception when attending a party policy meeting. “When he entered, he received a standing ovation - it shocked me.”
“I have experienced no discrimination, but language is a barrier,” says Alexeev. “If your English is not good, it is difficult to find a job.”
Now that they have advanced their careers and increased their exposure to geophysics, would they go back to their home countries? “I went back home in November last and would like to go visiting in the future also to our parents and relatives,” says Chopra. “I’m here to stay now. The kids like the atmosphere here.”
“We went back to Romania once, but after two weeks, we felt it was time to go home,” says Dumitrescu. “When we first got to Calgary, we only had two suitcases. Now we have bought a house, and we really feel like we’re home.”
“If I had returned to China, I would either be teaching or working in a research environment,” says Wang. “I have a close friend who went back to a famous university in China, and she has to pay for printing her own lecture notes. Colleagues may also see you as a threat because you’re better qualified.”
“We get homesick, but I have been back to Russia a few times, and my wife went back last year,” says Alexeev. “I’m quite satisfied with Calgary and my job. As long as my chief is satisfied, I will stay here.”
“I have returned to Romania to visit my parents, but I do not expect to return for work,” says Romanescu. “Calgary is a much more exciting place to live and work due to the variety — you can work on projects in the Foothills, Plains, East Coast, Gulf of Mexico, or South America. Also, my kids are in the school system and have all their friends here — it would be hard for them to go back.”
Like Felicien Katigema, thousands of Ugandans were exiled during Amin’s reign of terror and dispersed around the world. When Amin was finally overthrown in 1979, many decided to return to their homeland in hopes of regaining lost property and reuniting with families. “Of the 20 or 30 Ugandans that I have known in Calgary, about 10 or 12 have gone back.”
Shortly after the downfall of Amin, Katigema also returned to Uganda in order to contribute his professional knowledge to the country. To his horror, Katigema discovered that little had changed. “When I left, the country was at civil war, and when I returned, it was still going on.” Katigema was embittered by the experience. “It was ironic that the same things that people died for under Amin, people were still dieing for.”
Several years later, Katigema returned a second time, only to discover that the country was still torn by dissension. “When I was there, I talked to my school mates about where the country was headed. I am not scared for myself, but politically and psychologically, I couldn’t live like that. I decided I would never live there again.”
Most of the geophysicists now look to a future in Canada. Katigema, for instance, has placed his bitterness behind him. “I’ve made up my mind and I have no regrets. Besides, I am married to a Canadian and have children. It would be a cultural shock for them. I’m going to work as a geophysicist as long as I’m needed. If and when the time comes to retire, I will stay in Calgary.”
“I am here to stay,” says Chopra. “The opportunities and quality of life are much better.”
“I am still in touch with my colleagues at the Geological Survey of Romania, and the news is not good,” says Dumitrescu. “I have my professional status as a member of APEGGA, and I intend to keep working in Canada for the foreseeable future.”
Wang is enjoying his work in Canada, but doesn’t have any long range plans. “I’m happy here now.”
“I’d like to increase my skills and get more from this job,” says Alexeev. “I would like to advance in seniority and salary.”
“I intend to continue building professional experience in depth imaging seismic inversion techniques, and quantitative interpretation of seismically derived attributes,” says Romanescu. “When I retire, I would like to live somewhere that has four seasons of weather, without the extremes.”
About the Author(s)
Gordon Cope has spent many years working in the O&G industry, first as a geologist, then as a business reporter covering the sector for the Calgary Herald. He currently manages his own communications company.