“Don’t be afraid to take on new challenges.”

An interview with Maggie Stratton

Coordinated by: Satinder Chopra
Maggie Stratton

Margaret (Maggie) Stratton is a respected geophysicist known for bringing leading edge technologies to her interpretation work. Currently a senior staff geophysicist at Husky Energy, Maggie has previously worked at Amoco, BP Canada, and Anadarko. Over the course of her 20+ year career, Maggie has worked on some of the most interesting and challenging exploration plays from around the world, including subtle stratigraphy, complex structural imaging, subsalt prestack depth migration, thin reservoir sands, and Canadian Foothills.

The RECORDER approached Maggie for an interview, and she sportingly agreed, much to our delight. Following are excerpts from the interview.

(Photos courtesy: Joyce Au)

Please tell us about your educational background and work experience.

After high school in St. Louis Missouri, I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Geology from Southeast Missouri State University in 1985. At the time of my graduation, both the mining and oil industries were in a downturn so I decided to attend graduate school. I had a minor in mathematics so the next logical course was to obtain my Masters in geophysics. I attended the University of Missouri-Rolla (formerly Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy) and graduated in December of 1987. The oil industry was beginning to pick up and Amoco Production Company in Houston Texas hired me in 1988. To this day I feel that this was the absolute best opportunity for beginning my career as Amoco had such a comprehensive training program. Us new hires called it “Amoco U”. Amoco also had a research lab in Tulsa, Oklahoma and promoted the using and sharing of technologies between the lab and the exploration groups. It was a great learning environment.

My first assignment was working in the Africa Middle East region. I spent more time training in the operational side of acquisition and processing, and less in interpretation. I worked processing and seismic acquisition in Qatar where I was fortunate to spend 8 weeks in the Qatari desert on a vibrator crew processing the field data on ProMax. Following Qatar, I worked depth migration in Pakistan. This assignment allowed me to work with the scientists at Amoco’s Tulsa Research Center who were developing depth migration code. Following assignment in the Pakistan group, I worked on multiple removal in data from offshore Gabon as well as interpretation and mapping. Another part of my early work experience was conducting the post-mortem on exploration wells; not a lot of fun but it was quite a learning experience.

In 1994, Amoco Canada had some openings in their office. I was very excited at this opportunity, as I am quite fond of geology that you can actually see above ground! I transferred to the Calgary office and began to work a Slave Point project in the Cranberry area. Other projects in the basin followed such as BC foothills and more projects in the plains. My transfer was to be for 3-5 years and now 16 years, 3 companies and 2 children later I am still working in Calgary and happy to be in the industry here.

After Amoco Canada, I went to work for Anadarko Canada in 2001 on a Mackenzie Delta assignment. The company was focusing a lot of effort into the Delta and I was the primary geophysicist. This was really exciting for me as we were acquiring data in the Arctic, which had its own host of problems to try and solve. I worked with some very competent geophysicists from Anadarko and many in the Calgary seismic industry.

Subsequent projects at Anadarko included Alberta foothills. When Anadarko Canada was sold at the end of 2006 I took a position with Husky Energy to work Deep Basin, as I wanted to expand my knowledge beyond structural plays. In 2009 I was asked to work the BC foothills again but I still have a few Deep Basin responsibilities as well. I enjoy the variety!

How did you get into geophysics?

I had a minor in mathematics so geophysics seemed to be a good combination with a degree in geology. There are many avenues one can pursue in geophysics with processing, acquisition, potential fields and interpretation. I felt that a combination of geology and geophysics degrees would open up more opportunities for me.

I’m curious about the reasons behind the moves from Amoco Canada, which later became BP Canada, to Anadarko and then to Husky. Would you like to share that with us?

As I mentioned before, I am really glad to have started my career with Amoco as they fostered such a great learning environment. I also had a wide variety of interesting assignments, which exposed me to many geophysical problems in processing, acquisition and interpretation. When Amoco merged with BP, the working environment changed, which was expected as every company approaches exploration problems with different technical and business drivers. At some point, I didn’t feel that my contributions could make much of an impact in a company that size or at least, I didn’t see how my day-to-day work contributed to the bottom line. There was a “line of sight” but that image seemed far away. It was very hard to leave BP/Amoco after 12 years because I worked with some wonderful people but I knew I needed a new challenge in my career. I wanted a project that would have a greater potential impact.

This is why I went to work for Anadarko Canada on the Mackenzie Delta project in 2001. I was really excited about working this frontier opportunity as Anadarko was investing a lot of capital in it. In 2006, Anadarko Canada was being sold and it was time for another change. At that time I had primarily been working foothills for a number of years and I wanted a change to do more amplitude work as opposed to imaging and structural interpretation. This was a good time to make that transition. Husky provided me with a Deep Basin opportunity and a fairly large data set to work with.

Husky is also a family friendly company too. As my children have gotten older, school and sport activities seem to have become a major part of my life. I need to know that when necessary, I can take the time to chauffeur kids, and be a spectator and support them at school, without repercussion at work, whether in compensation or in project assignment. Obviously, at this point in my career, family matters play a primary factor in my choices too.

I have never looked back or regretted these decisions and I feel very fortunate to have landed at each company. From these experiences I have built a large network of peers and friends from which I can draw upon for advice. For the most part, it has all been very positive.

Some people think that to move up the ladder, changing jobs is a must. There are others who opine that staying with one allows you to identify with that company – you grow with the company, there is a sense of belonging that develops in you, and so on. What is your take on this and why?

I don’t really think that you need to have a lifelong career at one place to feel a sense of belonging to a company. If a company rewards you properly and respects the work that you and your team are trying to do, why would you feel you do not belong? As long as you understand the goals of the team and what contribution you should make AND you are given the tools and capital to succeed, you should feel as if you are an important part of that company. After all, they are putting their trust in you to do the right job. That gives me a sense of identification.

I think that most of us would recognize the need for two ladders ... one is the traditional “management ladder” and the other being the “technical ladder”. At various times, we run into situations where changing companies can create opportunities to advance one’s career in either direction. There are a lot of our colleagues that have felt that their career aspirations are best served by staying with the same organization their entire career because their needs and aspirations are being met. On the other hand, change, for the most part, can expand one’s horizons. This is a personal choice and neither path is superior to the other.

The management ladder has been the traditional route for advancement. This has not been my personal choice since I find the technical aspects of our industry more appealing.

Could you tell us about the differences in work culture that you have experienced in your career so far?

The first culture adjustment that I had to make was transitioning from the life of a grad student to that of working in Houston. In1988, the industry in Houston had some definite peculiarities about it. It was the time of the “power suit”, “power ties”, and “power lunches”. The whole atmosphere was one of competitiveness within the ranks, which resulted in a lack of knowledge sharing and cooperation. Getting ahead meant that personal face time and appearance was more important than achievements of the team. In some cases, the actions of one person could disrupt the performance of the entire team. From my perspective as a new hire, this was all pretty weird!! Fortunately, people realized how detrimental these behaviors were and this period was short-lived.

Coming to Calgary in 1994, there was a noticeable difference in that the geoscience community was closer knit – everybody seemed to know each other and there was a culture of sharing knowledge, even amongst competitors in the industry. I think this is due to the concentration of industry in the downtown core, the partnerships that are created with various companies, and our professional organizations. We have a great opportunity to network at technical and social events. In Houston, the industry is spread over a large area and this type of networking is very difficult to accomplish.

Another aspect of corporate culture that I have experienced is how executive leaders who are from different disciplines other than geoscience can greatly affect the efforts of the exploration department. I’ll just park this one!

Maggie and Satinder

What were some of the early landmarks in your career that put you on a sound footing?

First of all, the training and varied work experience that I received at Amoco in the early part of my career gave me a very solid background. Without that, I don’t think I would have developed the skill set that was required in the assignments that I had later on in my career. A key part of the training was the geological field courses where I could see real life examples of what I needed to interpret in the seismic data. My exposure to seismic acquisition and processing early on in my career gave me knowledge that I have used throughout my career.

What career accomplishments are you most proud of?

It is really hard to put a finger on any one thing. A successful well is a big accomplishment, but so are learning and applying new technologies. I guess if I had to pick one, it would be the anisotropic depth migration work I did with CGGVeritas when I was at Anadarko. We were drilling a well concurrently with the depth migration. Other wells were drilled into the structure but I could not get the data to tie properly with the velocity model I was using. When the initial dipmeter data came in, I realized our dip model was off by 30 degrees or more. We adjusted our parameters and the data began to tie the pre-existing wells. The structure moved 235 meters laterally and this well was whipped to the west and was a success. The next well drilled into the structure with the ADM maps hit the structure in the desired position and came within prognosis. This was a fun project because everything worked! I used this dataset as a case history talk for the CSEG and SEG.

What has been your most challenging project?

Depth migration in Pakistan was one of the more challenging projects I had to work on. At the time, Pakistan was one of the more visible projects in the Africa Middle East region and I was responsible for running the new depth migration codes developed at our research lab. The project was made more challenging by the fact that the two interpreting geophysicists on the team disagreed on the structural regime. We had the pure compressional camp versus the transpressional camp and I was trying to develop velocity models based roughly on their interpretation. The data was of very poor quality as our exploration license was just south of the Pakistan India collision zone. Fortunately, we had graduate students recording strike-dip information and formation contacts along each 2-D line, which helped with the depth migration interpretation. I eventually developed models that honoured the surface geology, CRP’s and resembled a transpressional type of structure. I suppose one of the biggest challenges was telling management that those big diffractions were small broken up flower structures!

Interestingly at that time, most of the depth work being done in Houston was by our Gulf of Mexico group and I had no one in the entire office running depth migration on land. Amoco’s land depth migration expertise resided in Calgary. Our research lab put me in contact with the Canadian geophysicists and through phone calls and technical forums I was able to get feedback and help.

I think my current assignment at Husky is very challenging. Data in the BC foothills can be of very poor quality depending which area you are focused on. Much of my current work will involve special seismic processing and close collaboration with the geologist on the models and interpretation. It is challenging but I look forward to the project ahead and I am pleased with what we have done so far.

In your opinion, what is required for doing good and effective exploration?

As geophysicists, we are an integral part of a multidisciplinary team. In that role, we have to provide the team with geophysical expertise as well as contribute to the overall goals of the team. The more that we understand the roles and key issues of the requirements of our teammates, the more effective the exploration effort and business results will be. Geophysics alone will not result in a successful well. Although sitting through lengthy team meetings can sometimes make one feel that our time could be better spent in front of the workstation interpreting data, a substantial part of our time should be devoted to understanding the issues and participating in making the team successful.

We no longer have geophysicists or seismologists, but migrators, inverters, acquisitioners, anisotropists. Do you think there is merit in having such a scenario or was the generalist model of some years ago better?

I definitely believe there is merit in having individual experts. Technology has evolved to the point that it is virtually impossible to have the expertise to completely understand all the facets of geophysics. There are roles for all. As a geophysicist working on an exploration team, we are required to know the fundamentals of geology, geophysics and petrophysics of the plays we are involved with. We should be working with our technical specialists/ counterparts to integrate the information into the best model of the subsurface we can create. Technical specialists are a key component of our extended team and add substantial value to the exploration effort. We all have our favourite aspect of the business ... some are energized and motivated by the exploration and production business, others by the challenge of providing innovative solutions to complex geophysical problems that can make breakthroughs in the exploration effort. I think their roles will become even more important in a maturing basin.

Do you think new geophysical technologies hold the promise of extracting more information for characterizing hydrocarbon reservoirs? Do you use them in your interpretation for lowering of risk, so to say?

I do think that new technologies will allow us to extract more information from our data. However, you can’t just apply techniques blindly to your data; they needs to match the type of problem you are trying to solve. A fundamental physical basis is required for the applications. Through forward modeling you can possibly narrow down the techniques that will offer solutions to your problem. We always have to be aware of the limitations of the techniques and the inherent range of potential errors.

For generating prospects, what strategy have you followed?

Fundamentally, the risk elements have to be realistically evaluated. The dataset (geological, geophysical, petrophysical...) has to be integrated into the overall understanding. There really are no shortcuts in this effort. Although not the most stimulating part of the job, organizing and calibrating the seismic and borehole data is an absolutely critical step in the process. With confidence in your data, the team can start creating the geological and reservoir models accurately.

This effort, in conjunction with appropriate application of technology, can sometimes lead to recognizing prospectivity that others have missed in a mature basin, or the recognition of alternate models that are technically viable. We have seen this time and time again in the “mature” Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin and this has contributed to its longevity.

What would you say is required to become a successful seismic interpreter?

The most successful interpreters that I have encountered have possessed knowledge and experience in a variety of technical disciplines in addition to geophysics. For the most part, they have obtained these skill sets by formal education in other geosciences or by virtue of adding to their skill sets through on the job experience and training. The other key component is having the opportunity to work a wide variety of exploration plays where lessons learned can be applied to the play at hand.

An interpreter needs to learn to recognize artifacts in the data and relate the seismic interpretation back to geology. They also need to understand the limitation of the seismic method. A colleague has an expression, “We can often find the street but we may not be able to find the house.” Sometimes we are lucky and find the refrigerator!

Would you agree that a certain amount of creativity is required for doing effective seismic interpretation?

Creativity, combined with a variety of experience, goes a long way in seismic interpretation. Ensuring that every calibrated data point is incorporated into the interpretation is critical. With that in hand, the effective interpreter will use their skills and creativity to create the geoscience models (reservoir, depositional, structural...) and utilize appropriate processing and mapping techniques to validate their interpretation. Maps need to reflect your interpretation of the subsurface geology, not be a set of automatically generated computer contours. Creative interpreters will generate a variety of maps to aid in understanding deposition and structuring.

If I were to ask you for your ‘offthe- cuff’ assessment, how would you rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 10, in terms of (a) communication skills, (b) willingness to admit mistakes, (c) extemporaneous speaking and (d) awareness about the skills of the trade?

  1. I would give myself an 8 but it depends on what I was trying to communicate. In this profession, I find pictures and illustrations are the best methods for getting the point across. I use PowerPoint extensively for this purpose and this is also a great way to document your work.
  2. This is always an uncomfortable thing to do but I would rate myself pretty high on this one too. If you don’t admit to your mistakes, you can lose the respect of your peers. I think that would make the work environment an awful place. I actually view this as strength in anyone.
  3. This also depends on the setting. In a team environment I would rate myself high but in a large forum, I like to prepare what I am going to say so in that case my rating would be low.
  4. Probably in the middle as I think there is always something to learn. On projects or tasks that I am familiar with, I would rate myself high.

What has been your philosophy towards your professional growth?

A philosophy that I have is that everyone has something to offer and you should try and learn from them. There is a lot of expertise in our industry and there are people willing to help should you hit a roadblock. Don’t be afraid to take on new challenges and try and get as much variety in your career as you can. This will give you a solid foundation. It can be uncomfortable to try a different project or company, but stepping out of your comfort zone can be rewarding and give you the confidence to keep tackling new arenas in your life.

What influences you and your work?

I enjoy interesting and challenging exploration problems and working within a multidisciplinary environment. Working in a group that places the results and goals of the team ahead of personal goals and aspirations is the type of work environment where I have produced the best results. When you go into work energized and looking forward to your day’s work and your interaction with your teammates, you know you have arrived at the right place!

What are your other interests?

My primary interests are my boys ages 11 and 15. They are very involved in basketball and hockey, which keeps me busy when I am not at work. I do love to watch their games. I never would have thought growing up in Missouri that I would spend so much time in hockey rinks!

We are all avid skiers too and the boys snowboard as well. When the boys were ski racing, we went to the mountains every weekend for 9 years. Now we fit it in between hockey and basketball. With the mountains being so close to home, the available recreational opportunities are plentiful.

What would be your message for young entrants in our industry?

Expand your knowledge beyond your core discipline. Seek out multiple mentors that can provide you with different views on technical issues and work flows. Don’t be afraid to voice your opinion as new eyes have something to offer, but also keep an open mind to others’ ideas. Finally, realize that there is always something else to learn and you will never be bored!


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