“We are really proud of your accomplishments...”

An interview with Jason McCrank and Maria Quijada

Coordinated by: Satinder Chopra | Photos courtesy: Penny Colton
Jason McCrank and Maria Quijada

Maria Quijada and Jason McCrank, graduate students from the University of Calgary, were the proud winners of the 2008 SEG Challenge Bowl Finals, held at the recent SEG Annual Meeting in Las Vegas, USA.

In the finals they defeated the team from Rice University. This was the third Challenge Bowl competition organized by the SEG, and the competition has been getting stiffer with each passing year. Besides splitting the US$1000 prize between them, these two winners have brought a sense of pride and a smile to all Calgary geophysicists. I received a number of requests that the RECORDER should interview these two up-andcoming geophysicists and so we acted swiftly – this interview was recorded with Maria and Jason just two weeks ago. It was really interesting talking to them and gauging their views on a variety of topics. Joanna Cooper and Penny Colton, members of the RECORDER Committee, also participated in the interview, which appears in its edited form below.

[Satinder]: Let’s begin by asking you to tell us about your educational background so far.

[Maria]: I obtained a degree in Geophysical Engineering from Simón Bolívar University in Caracas and right after that I came to the University of Calgary to get a Masters in Geophysics.

[Jason]: I received my undergraduate degree in Physics from the University of Alberta, after which I decided pursue a career in geophysics and did a Masters in Geophysics at the University of Calgary, which I have just completed.

[Satinder]: So you are working now?

[Jason]: Yes, I just started working for Shell Canada.

[Maria]: I am working for ConocoPhillips.

[Satinder]: Let’s ask you about what motivated you to take up Geophysics as a major and subsequently as a career?

[Maria]: When I first started University I didn’t exactly know what geophysics was all about. I’d always liked geology, but also math and physics, so geophysics seemed to be the perfect combination of all these components.

[Jason]: Similarly, I guess that what really interests me in geophysics is the combination between the mathematical, physical, and natural sciences. I made the transition into geophysics for the Masters program without having a background in geoscience or geophysics, basically after conversations with friends about what geophysicists do. It sounded like a good alignment between my interests in problem solving and in the natural and physical sciences.

[Satinder]: So what do you intend doing next? Just work or do you plan to come back to doing more research or anything like that?

[Maria]: Right now my plan is to continue working and get some industry experience; however, I haven’t closed the door on getting a Ph.D. sometime in the future.

[Jason]: I think for me, having just finished the Masters degree, I want to take a little time to pause and think about what the next step is. I am working with Shell and enjoying that, so for the time being I’m interested in seeing where that takes me.

[Joanna]: Could you describe the research you got involved in at the Masters level?

[Maria]: For my Masters thesis I worked on estimating elastic properties in a heavy oil sand reservoir by using well logs and multi-component seismic inversion. Basically, the first part of the thesis was mostly modeling, trying to use different empirical and rock physics approaches to model shear and density logs from other logs. The second part was focused on estimating rock properties from the inversion of PP and PS seismic data.

[Jason]: The project that I worked on for my Masters thesis involved using seismic data to characterize a carbon dioxide flood that had been injected into subsurface coals for the purposes of enhanced coal bed methane production and carbon sequestration. The University of Calgary Geoscience Department has a few students working on research topics related to seismic monitoring of CO2 sequestration and I participated in one of those projects; looking at the rock physics of the interaction of coal material and CO2 and what could be detected with reflection seismology and inversion.

[Penny]: I believe both of you presented papers at our annual convention on this work, is that correct? I recall taking pictures of both of you.

[Joanna]: "That's right – didn't you win Best Student Geophysical Oral Presentation, Maria?"

[Maria]: Yeah, last year.

Fig. 01

[Joanna]: Tell us about the opportunities you have had to give papers or posters at different conventions?

[Jason]: It’s certainly strongly recommended in the Graduate Program. At U of C they encourage students to make presentations and publicize their research at the CSEG or SEG. Both of us have had the opportunity to do so.

[Penny]: Was there any difference between giving presentations at the SEG compared with the CSEG Convention?

[Maria]: For me it is hard to compare directly because I gave an oral presentation at the CSEG and a poster one at the SEG, and I find both situations to be quite different.

[Jason]: I think it’s similar. The SEG is a more international crowd. At the CSEG conference there are a lot more familiar faces in the audience when you give a talk.

[Satinder]: Tell us – because geophysics is really a collection of many varied disciplines – what areas interest you most and why?

[Maria]: I have been more inclined towards seismic interpretation and inversion, since it has a big geologic component attached to it. In general, I like integrated studies, where parameters estimated from the geophysical data can be correlated to actual rock properties and all come together to give a consistent history of what is going on.

[Satinder]: Very interesting. Jason?

[Jason]: Well, as you’ve said, there are many different areas of Geophysics and I am not sure I have really been exposed to all of them. I know peripherally that there are areas of study such as tectonics, studies of deep crustal geophysics, near surface geophysics and environmental geophysics. However, because of the educational path that I have taken, I had to decide at the Masters level which area I wanted to specialize in without having had the benefit of an undergrad in Geophysics, which would have given me a broad exposure to a number of areas. However, when I started into the Graduate Program, I took the opportunity during the course work stage of the degree to try and gain as broad a perspective on different areas of geoscience, at least on the academic side, as I could. Similarly to Maria the integration of the geology and geophysics is of interest to me.

[Satinder]: Is there any particular type of invention in geophysics that you are waiting for? I will give you an example – when I was doing my Masters I had a Professor who would give us examples and anecdotes in the class room. He mentioned that when he was young, the use of religious water diviners was common. You know, they would somehow consult the Gods, then say, “Drill here, you will get water.” His point was that there was a technical void waiting for a geophysical invention. Are you waiting for something like a hydrocarbon diviner, or some other specific type of invention?

[Jason]: I can’t think of a specific type of invention that I am waiting for. Were these diviner fellows able to find gainful employment? Did it work?

[Satinder]: Well, people always seem to feel that water diviners and the like are correct more often than not, but that is probably more a matter of psychology than geophysics! I was trying to give an example of an area where people were waiting for an invention, or in need of one.

[Jason]: A number of the CSEG events are prefaced with the word “doodle” like “doodle train”, “doodle spiel”. At one point I did some research into what the word “doodlebug” meant, what its history was. I gathered from what I found that a “doodle bug” was a contraption that people used, like you say, to divine subsurface information. I also gather that sometimes these contraptions would be extremely elaborate and it would be almost impossible to explain why they didn’t work. Are you asking what we anticipate will be the next doodlebug contraption?

[Satinder]: Let me think of a better example. In the seismic industry 3D technology started in the early 80s. Now it has become a standard practice, and most oil companies require 3D data for oil exploration. That was a good invention if you want to call it that, or something revolutionary that changed the way we are interpret data and do exploration in our industry. I was wondering whether during the course of your studies, you may have had some thoughts on what area this type of invention or revolution is most needed, or most likely to occur.

[Jason]: Hmm. I will give the best answer I can, along the lines of quantitative integration of data streams. On a hike with a friend recently we pondered whether geophysics was at the limit of what seismic data alone can bring to our perspective on the subsurface. But we figured that there were ways of bringing together divergent data streams: geology, engineering or other geophysical data, so as to refine the characterization of the subsurface and get more out of the data. To me, interpretation is basically a Bayesianstyle inversion done in your head, including preconceptions or a priori knowledge. So I think that developing algorithms that can account for the calculations we are doing instinctively when we look at different data sets holds huge promise for quantitative integration of information.

[Satinder]: Integrating the visions from different disciplines?

[Jason]: In a quantitative sense. There is the qualitative sense of several people from different disciplines sitting down and looking at the same data and giving their individual perspectives on the data, but I think that efforts towards bringing divergent data sets together quantitatively to constrain the interpretation or inversions will be interesting in the future.

[Satinder]: Okay, let’s make it a little lighter – what is the naughtiest thing that you have done as an adult? Maria, go ahead. Okay, let’s change the word from naughtiest to interesting! Tell us about something that you have done, something which was interesting.

[Maria]: The naughtiest thing I’ve ever done…probably jaywalking! As for interesting, meeting people from other cultures, seeing different places and trying exotic foods while travelling, are among the most interesting things I have done. Eating frog legs and sleeping in a train to Rome definitely qualify.

[Satinder]: That is interesting, good. Go ahead Jason.

[Jason]: One of the passions in my life, the more interesting things that I have –

[Satinder]: You are going to talk about naughtiest or interesting?

[Jason]: Interesting. I was going to cut straight to the interesting question. But the naughtiest thing I can think of that I’ve done is ride the C-train without paying for a ticket. Once. Squeaky clean. …but, more interestingly: mountain climbing and ski mountaineering and back country skiing, these are passions of mine that have taken me to spectacular places – that I think qualifies under the category of interesting.

[Satinder]: Okay, are you a night or a morning person and how does it help you?

[Maria]: I am a night person – definitely. I don’t know if it has actually helped me. However, I can certainly say that I was glad that the Challenge Bowl finals were in the afternoon and not first thing in the morning. Being a night person helped me enjoy Las Vegas and fortunately being a morning person was not a requirement for successful entry into the Challenge Bowl finals.

[Jason]: I don’t think either of us thought we were going to be contenders in the Challenge Bowl finals, so the night before the competition we both ended up staying out on the town until later than maybe we should have. However, maybe being night owls helped us in some unknown mysterious way?

[Satinder]: Okay, well, let’s go ahead. Tell us something about yourself that nobody else knows, not even your friends?

[Maria]: I am a big Jeopardy fan…maybe that is what got me into the Challenge Bowl in the first place.

[Jason]: For me, maybe the fact that my other option for grad school was to do a degree in architecture – there again the interest was in using the quantitative and qualitative sides of my mind. But the scientist in me won out and I went into geophysics.

[Satinder]: Tell us about any role models in your life.

[Maria]: I don’t have a specific role model in life or a single person whom I strive to follow. I try to take what I think are good qualities in people around me and apply them to myself. When I see someone doing something in a good and efficient way I try to follow the example. If I had to say who has been the most influential person in my life, I would probably say my mom. She has been a great role model to me, especially for finding a way to effectively balance family and work, which is one of the top priorities in my life.

[Satinder]: Who would be three famous geophysicists you would like to meet and why?

[Maria]: One would be Özdogan Yilmaz. I just admire all the work it must have been to compile and put together the two volumes of the Seismic Data Processing bibles. I also went to one of his talks at the SEG and he seemed like a really interesting and knowledgeable person.

Another geophysicist I’d like to meet would be Leon Thomsen. He has one of the most cited papers in geophysics and made a major contribution by making anisotropy a more widespread topic.

The third one would be Mike Batzle. I have read a lot of his papers for my thesis project, and think his research into rock properties using a quantitative approach is crucial to the integration of geologic and geophysical data.

[Jason]: One geophysicist I think would be interesting to talk to is King Hubbert, the creator of the peak oil theory. It would be interesting to hear his perspective on the world today and the fluctuations in commodity prices.

Beyond that, I agree with Maria, those who write the technical books that we all benefit from are to be admired: Yilmaz, Sheriff, ...Marfurt...Chopra. Meeting any of them would be fantastic.

I also think of what huge scientific discoveries have influenced the way we perceive the world around us. One group who I think made a huge impact were those who linked the magnetic striping in the mid-ocean ridges to seafloor spreading and tectonic evolution. I believe it was Vine, Matthews, and Morley who came up with the idea. It would be interesting to hear from them about what the whole experience of putting together that concept was like.

Fig. 02

[Satinder]: How would you rate money, power and fame in order of importance? All these three things illuminate our experiences, like it or not.

[Jason]: Fresh out of school, I guess I feel that none of them are important. Maybe fame as a researcher – that’s probably the goal in doing graduate level research but I don’t know.

[Maria]: For me personally I think I’d rate power the lowest.

[Jason]: Does fame corrupt? Power and money corrupt.

[Maria]: And you cannot live off fame.

[Jason]: Right, you can’t trade fame for bread or clothes.

[Maria]: I think I say money, fame and power, in that order, just because money is more of a necessity than fame and power.

[Penny]: Some people say the written word is very powerful, which is an entirely different kind of power than maybe you’re thinking of when answering this question.

[Satinder]: Yes, the pen is mightier than the sword – there is power in that.

[Jason]: But only if you are famous. You need people to read what you are writing.

[Maria]: You can become famous after they read what you are writing though.

[Jason]: But if you are not famous nobody will read what you have written so there is no power in it.

[Satinder]: Well, if you publish an article in the RECORDER, then everybody will read it!

[Penny]: And when you are all finished, this is all supposed to make you happy, is that right? Is happiness the goal? Something for the soul?

[Jason]: Exactly, and I have a much easier time ordering these from that perspective. If the goal is happiness, then my ranking is money, fame, and then power.

[Satinder]: What would you like the CSEG to do for students, over and above what it is already doing?

[Maria]: I think the CSEG has done a pretty good job helping students so far, and I’m sure I don’t know of all the programs already in place. I think the scholarships and the volunteer opportunities at the DoodleTrain courses and the convention are great ideas, allowing students to get financial support for their studies and receive training almost for free. The only thing I can think about is having more discount student pricing at the Convention and DoodleTrain courses.

[Jason]: I think the CSEG is doing a lot for students. I think the discounted price for CSEG membership is good. Events like the Junior Geophysicists Forum are good for getting junior geophysicists as well as students integrated or associated with the community and with the organization. I can’t think of additional things specifically. I think it’s great that the CSEG helped organize the Student Challenge Bowl at the conference.

[Penny]: Do you do any volunteer work with the CSEG?

[Maria]: I volunteered once with the DoodleTrain.

[Jason]: I was the DoodleTrain volunteer coordinator, which has now been passed on to Joanna since it is supposed to be a student who does that job. I was talking to Sheryl Meggeson yesterday about participating again with the DoodleTrain or some other CSEG volunteer activity.

[Satinder]: Do you like technical writing and what have you written apart from your thesis?

[Maria]: I do like technical writing. I haven’t written any peer reviewed articles, so far only expanded abstracts and my thesis. The hard part is having something interesting to write about, something with substance.

[Jason]: I am hoping to generate at least one paper from my thesis, which I am continuing to work on, and an additional paper that I have been working on with Gary Margrave and Don Lawton as an article for the RECORDER.

[Joanna]: How did you get involved in the SEG Challenge Bowl?

[Maria]: I got involved almost three years ago. I was attending the 2007 CSEG Conference and another student from U of C was going to participate in the Challenge Bowl and needed a geophysicist team. He just asked me if I wanted to participate on the same day of the competition, and I thought it’d be a fun experience. I believe it was the first year they were doing it here in Canada, so I had no idea what it was about, but I had a great time and ended up in second place.

[Jason]: I got involved when Maria asked me if I wanted to be her teammate for the regional level competition in Calgary at the CSEG Conference last summer. We had got to know each other when we competed together on a team in the Imperial Barrel Competition, another student competition that the AAPG puts together and the CSPG helped coordinate last year. The competition involved giving a team of students a set of geological and geophysical data and asking the team to generate oil and gas plays and prospects. There were four of us on the team: Maria, myself and two geologists from the University of Calgary Masters program. It was a lot of fun. So when another student competition came along, we got together to do it. In terms of how it felt to win – it felt fantastic – although also quite surprising. The game itself, with the rush of adrenalin as you are striving to hit the button as quickly as possible is a blast.

[Penny]: So you didn’t do any studying for the questions, right?

[Maria]: We did a little bit of studying for the SEG questions the same day of the final competition.

[Satinder]: Oh, I see, so they asked you questions about the SEG also?

[Jason]: Yes. The Challenge Bowl involves questions from four categories, seismic, non-seismic geophysics, geology and questions about the SEG. At the regional level we were certainly going off the top of our heads. Leading into the finals we were both pretty busy too—

[Maria]: Yes, we had talks at the Conference as well.

[Jason]: Going to the Challenge finals, I took a Global Geophysics text book and studied it on the plane ride down. One thing that worked to our advantage was that the morning before the SEG Competition I went to the SEG booth at the Conference and asked for a pamphlet advertising the services of the SEG. They gave it to me and there were several questions during the Challenge Bowl that came right out of that pamphlet. We seemed to be the only team that could answer questions like, “What was the first year Geophysics was published?” I guess studying the pamphlet gave us the edge.

[Joanna]: How did you feel you stacked up against some of the other teams?

[Jason]: I think one of the other most competitive teams was from Simón Bolívar University, Maria’s alma mater.

[Maria]: There were Universities from all around the world. There were maybe 3 or 4 teams from the U.S. and another team from Canada. I think it was a very close competition – when we went to the final the difference between us and the other team was just ten points.

[Jason]: I do think that the competition in Calgary at the Regional Western Canada level competition was as competitive as the International Level Competition, which is probably a reflection of the quality of students who participated locally.

[Penny]: I am sure you think that Peter Duncan did a really good job of MC’ing, right?

[Jason]: He’s hilarious. He keeps it energized. As a participant you are pretty energized with adrenalin anyways – getting ready to hit that button – but the comic relief from Peter is fantastic.

[Satinder]: Have you participated in any other event like this before?

[Maria]: I participated in the Canadian Challenge Bowl two years ago. As Jason mentioned, we also participated at the AAPG Imperial Barrel Award Competition, but that is quite a different format from the Challenge Bowl.

[Jason]: I’ve played Trivial Pursuit a couple of times.

[Maria]: And I’ve watched a lot of Jeopardy...

[Joanna]: Which format do you like better? Obviously the quiz show format is very exciting, but how do you compare the format of the Imperial Barrel competition to that of the Challenge Bowl?

[Maria]: They are totally different experiences. The Imperial Barrel Competition is more hands-on work and you have to work in a team and share ideas to develop an exploration strategy for a specific area; it takes considerable amounts of time and work. It is very hard to choose one over the other.

In the Imperial Barrel competition only the selected judges get to see your presentation. Other participants do not get to see what the other teams worked on.

[Jason]: I think they are both fun but in very different ways. The Student Challenge Bowl is fun immediately while you are doing it. The AAPG project is fun because of the team work. But it is a lot of work – a lot of hours.

[Joanna]: What, if anything, did you find surprising about participating in the Challenge Bowl?"

[Maria]: I was surprised at how many participants there were at the event and how much interest there seemed to be amongst the audience. It was a standing room only crowd at the SEG.

[Jason]: And winning was a surprise!

[Satinder]: What are your aspirations for the future?

[Maria]: That’s a big question. I still don’t know what I want to do in the future. For now, I want to defend my thesis, work for a while and try to find out what it is in geophysics that I like the most.

[Jason]: My aspirations are to hopefully live up to the fame that’s landed in my lap as a result of Maria asking me to compete with her in the regional Challenge Bowl last May. Maybe getting that RECORDER article together will get me there?

[Satinder]: Absolutely! Okay, any message for the professors who taught you?

[Maria]: I just want to say thank you for sharing your knowledge and having patience with all of us trying to catch up, how else could we answer all those Challenge Bowl questions? And special thanks to those profs that teach with passion, and put all their efforts into engaging students in class. It is a very demanding but very rewarding job.

[Jason]: I would like to thank the professors that I have learned from. I certainly appreciate the fact that my thesis advisor Don Lawton was not opposed to me taking an interest in all the different disciplines of geophysics; he appreciated that I didn’t have a broad background in geoscience starting the program. Certainly, having been a teaching assistant in courses during the Masters program I recognize how much work it is to be involved in teaching, so I am very appreciative of the effort and the time that people have put into courses that I have studied.

[Satinder]: Any message for any other budding geophysicists like you?

[Maria]: I would just say, “Do what you like and try to find what it is that interests you… do not just get stuck doing whatever you can.” I think that is the way to stay happy.

[Jason]: I think that’s good advice. If you can figure out how to take control of the reins in your study of geophysics then you should. It is not necessarily easy to figure out how to – but figure out what you are interested in and try to be in charge of your own fate.

[Maria]: And trying a lot of different things should help that happen.

[Jason]: School gives you a good opportunity to get exposed to a lot of different things.

[Penny]: Well it’s been wonderful to interview you since you are just starting your careers.

[Satinder]: It is always good to bring in change, and your new perspectives are refreshing. Congratulations on winning the SEG Challenge Bowl. We are really proud of your achievements within the CSEG community.

[Maria]: Thank you, and hopefully this will get more students interested in participating.

[Maria & Jason]: Thank you for having us.


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