“Approach science and life with the same values...”

An interview with Jim Gaiser

Coordinated by: Satinder Chopra | Photos courtesy: Joyce Au
Jim Gaiser

Jim Gaiser is a senior geoscientist with over 30 years of experience in the oil and gas industry. He has worked for various companies such as ARCO, Western Geophysical, WesternGeco, GX and is presently working as a senior scientist at Geokinetics Inc. in Houston.

Jim's major strengths are in software development, data analysis/interpretation and project coordination/management. He is an innovative researcher who uses advanced analytical techniques to solve current exploration problems.

He has been an active voice for the use of converted-waves in the petroleum exploration industry and has supervised and developed principal 3D multicomponent tools for PS-wave analysis, imaging and interpretation. He has been awarded numerous patents related to vector fidelity and shear-wave birefringence.

Jim is the recipient of 2007 SEG's Life Membership Award and is co-author of the best-presentation at the SEG in 1981, an honourable mention for his presentation at the SEG in 1993 and also an honourable mention for his TLE publication in 2003. Jim has been an SEG Continuing Education instructor for a long time and has also co-organized many SEG and EAGE workshops on multicomponent seismics.

Jim was in Calgary at the beginning of December 11 and so the RECORDER did not miss the opportunity of getting his interview. Following are excerpts from the interview.

Jim let us begin by asking about your educational background and work experience.

Looking back on my childhood, I was always fascinated by rock formations, the forces of nature and Geology. So as an undergraduate at Indiana University in Bloomington - where I grew up – I studied Geology and received a double-degree with Anthropology. However, my interests were more in math and physics. I was influenced mostly by my brother but probably originated from my father who was a professor at the university, specializing in Theater Technology – lighting and sound. As a result, my studies gradually shifted toward Geophysics.

After getting your B.A. degree in Geology/Anthropology, you went to Germany for a bit and then came back to the US for your Masters. How did that happen?

My wife, Kathy, got her bachelor's degree in the School of Music (in Ballet) at the same time. She had been studying ballet all her life and wanted to have the opportunity to dance professionally. It sounded exciting, so we packed our bags and bought one-way plane tickets to Europe. After some auditioning and several offers, she accepted a contract with the Kassel city theater in Germany.

Meanwhile, I worked at various unskilled labor jobs, and studied German until her performance season began. It was really a tremendous experience – to be immersed in a different culture, learning a new language and traveling throughout Europe. Once we were established in Kassel, I applied for entrance to the University of Gottingen, which was just 60 km to the north – a short train ride. After passing the entrance exam, I took courses in Geology and Geophysics. This was fantastic! I became particularly interested in optical mineralogy, anisotropic properties of minerals and rocks, and geophysics.

After several years in Germany, we decided to move back to the U.S. where we started a family and I obtained my Masters degree in Geophysics at the University of Utah.

But didn't you get your Ph.D. while you were working for ARCO? How did you find enough time to work towards your doctorate?

Well, it wasn't easy because we were also raising our two sons at the same time. I was much younger then and had a lot more energy. But at the University of Texas at Dallas, they had a new teaching facility where professionals in industry (like at ARCO, Sohio, Mobil, and others) could take classes remotely over a video link. This, along with evening classes enabled me to do the course work.

It really isn't the easiest way to get a degree, and of course I couldn't have done it without Kathy's support. Also, it took a bit longer than planned because there was a period when I also played in a Blue Grass band – it was time consuming but very fun. I had one advantage though. My thesis topic overlapped with the work I was doing in the VSP research group at ARCO. In general however, I think it is better to devote 100% towards getting a degree.

What kind of research work did you do for your Ph.D.?

It was on traveltime and polarization inversion of VSP data for anisotropy. I developed a method to invert horizontal and vertical slowness estimates for VTI properties and lithology characterization. At ARCO I was in the VSP research group and so I had the opportunity to acquire a field walkaway survey at our test site, and also use it for my thesis. The fieldwork was fascinating and an excellent experience. However, I think the loud, impulsive seismic source contributed to my deafness – it seems there are always tradeoffs in life.

If I were to ask you to list three qualities that best reflect your personality, what would they be?

Interesting question. This requires some reflection. These are things that for the most part don't change over time or with new experiences. I think my main quality is that I have always been interested in problem solving and have a strong intellectual curiosity. In research, I enjoy working on a variety of new, challenging and different problems. This is good, because aside from finding solutions, one of the most important products of research is "ignorance" – new unknowns. It also makes for job security!

Another quality would be that I am persistent, self-motivated, and hard working. This is essential for doing independent research, starting with graduate school. At ARCO I had the reputation from one of my managers of being a "bulldog" – once I sink my teeth into a problem I don't let go. I am not sure I like this, but there you have it.

The third quality is that I like to be helpful and a team player on projects. This has evolved over time because in the past I wanted to be a bit more independent.

So, intellectually curious, hardworking and persistent, and helpful – those are probably the top three!

You worked at ARCO from 1978 to 1991 and then moved to Western. Thereafter you worked at GXT and are now at Geokinetics. How was it moving from an oil company to a service company? How did the focus of your research change as you moved between these companies?

In my case, moving to Western Geophysical from ARCO was a very good change, because the working environment at ARCO had steadily eroded due to cost cutting during the 80s, and it wasn't very conducive for basic research. Eventually, huge layoffs occurred in October 1991 when half the lab was to be cut. I'll never forget the "pep rally" management gave just before we were told whether we had a job or not. We already knew the magnitude of the cuts, but our manager told us he was, "… excited about the new organization and looked forward to the challenges ahead … " It was then I knew ARCO had completely lost its bearing as a people oriented company.

So working at Western turned out to be quite a good place to do basic research. Although I focused more on mainstream problems like imaging and noise attenuation, I was also able to continue work on multicomponent and anisotropy projects. Afterward, there were some ups and downs as Western was bought and sold. The low point was when Baker Hughes bought us. It appeared they were more interested in the corporate acquisition than trying to grow the seismic technology that Western had developed. When Schlumberger acquired a majority holding of Western it was a better situation because they placed more value on research. There were good projects in converted-wave processing while they were developing a new OBC acquisition system. Then at GXT I had more opportunities to broaden my research in elastic-wave imaging and interferometry. And now, at Geokinetics I am happy that it is also committed to multicomponent technology worldwide. Here I have more of an advisory role for the development of anisotropic convertedwave processing and incorporating this with P-waves. Although the focus of my research has changed over the years from VSP to 3D convertedwave processing, the one underlying theme has been multicomponent, anisotropy and elastic-wavefield seismology.

Looking back on your geophysical career, would you share with us one or two of your most exciting successes?

Actually there have been many, but the most exciting successes are related to anisotropy. One was my dissertation where I used walk-away VSP data for anisotropic VTI velocity analysis. The discovery that one borehole could be used for a phase-velocity analysis was very satisfying. Previously, J.E. White had shown how to do it with two closely spaced wells. The other anisotropy success was extending the Alford rotation method to PS-wave processing, making shear-wave splitting analysis and layer stripping possible.

Another was developing a general multicomponent cross-correlation analysis that did a good job of identifying average VP/VS. Also, I would have to say that my recent work on PS-wave resolution has been very exciting. Converted waves have a much broader bandwidth than we have realized over the past decades.

Jim Gaiser and Satinder Chopra

What are your aspirations for the future?

Converted-wave imaging and inversion in azimuthally anisotropic media. These are the next important challenges to solve in our industry and for me personally.

What do you have to say about how your career has shaped up so far?

I have no major regrets – sure there have been a few things that I could have done differently looking back. However, I really enjoy the focus on multicomponent and anisotropy. I have to say that it is a bit disappointing at times to see that S-wave technology has taken so long for industry to embrace.

But has industry really embraced it? You have been a champion for the application of converted-wave processing for the petroleum-exploration industry. But multicomponent seismic has been around for quite some time and the industry has not embraced it like it adopted 3D seismic in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Do you think the benefits of multi-component seismic data are commensurate with the investment that the oil companies make? If yes, then what is the deterrent?

Yes, the benefits have been commensurate with the investment. But unfortunately these benefits are relatively modest due to a number of unforeseen circumstances. So at present, the oil industry has gotten what they paid for. I am speaking in general of course, because some companies have invested more than others, and in some cases more wisely. There have been tremendous successes but unfortunately a few dramatic failures that seem to have a more lasting impression.

There is a long history of trying to use recorded S-waves for exploration applications. When oil companies spent more on research, there was initially a big effort to develop puremode S-wave technology and a good S-wave source. During this period there were many advancements in our understanding – no question. However, S-wave quality seemed to be random; this was identified to be the cause of S-wave splitting. Also, S-wave sources turned out to be incredibly expensive in so many ways: the shear number needed for acquisition (pun intended), mobilization, environmental damage, and maintenance. In the late 80s and 90s it became apparent that the best source for S-waves was from Pwave sources. This appeared to be driven not only by economic issues but also by S/N issues. Oil companies were drastically cutting research budgets and it was clear that one Swave path was better than two! So it has been a long and expensive journey up the learning curve to establish the good S-wave source.

In the past decade or more, the deterrent has been low investment when the industry was learning to process and interpret converted P to S-waves. By and large, oil companies were relying on competition within the service sector to develop the technology to process multicomponent data and to deal with S-wave splitting. However, they made only a modest investment (maybe 5% at most compared to Pwave). Unfortunately, this has led to the false perception that the industry doesn't know how to process converted waves. Another deterrent has been that oil companies were often unprepared in knowing how to incorporate S-waves in their interpretations. There appeared to be little if any internal investment developing this. If more had been done earlier we'd be a lot further along and possibly reaping the benefits.

Recently, we have seen a renewed interest in multicomponent. The benefits are there if the proper investment is made in better acquisition, prestack migration and interpretation. S-waves could significantly impact applications in lithology discrimination, joint AVO/AZ inversion with P-waves, unconventional resource plays, geomechanics and stress changes, and even better resolution in some cases.

What are some of the challenges in the application of multicomponent data to exploration objectives?

One challenge has been dealing with the two horizontal components and polarization of S-waves. It would be bad enough if there was only one Swave – but there are always two! The ever-present challenge is S-wave birefringence or splitting because the two travel at different velocities. This is the fundamental property that is so different from P-waves, and it impacts everything else. Prestack migration and illumination in structurally complex media with S-waves is the most challenging problem because of splitting, and also finer spatial sampling is needed for velocity models. Multicomponent probably isn't the best tool for large-scale exploration objectives. It is more suitable for development and production applications. Here, azimuthally anisotropic imaging and inversion, and interpretation are still the big challenges.

What according to you is your most important contribution to geophysics? Would that be converted-wave data processing and its interpretation?

Yes, I would agree that it has been a number of developments related to the processing. These contributions include efficient programing of 3C data to maintain the integrity of multicomponent data, registration analysis, defining 3C geophone coordinate systems, correcting for the effects of S-wave splitting, coherent noise attenuation due to poor coupling of the horizontal components, interferometry applications, and recently corrections for PSwavelet distortion when they are transformed to P-wave time.

Are there other areas of geophysics that fascinate you in particular?

Yes, one area has been in rock physics. Although I haven't done focused research in that field, I have always enjoyed following developments. And I like to use petrophysical relationships wherever possible to help constrain problems in programing, processing or inversion. Recent advancements in fracture characterization have become an important application for wide azimuth P- and S-waves. Also, I would have to say borehole geophysics in general because of the association with VSP.

Yes, now that you mention it I did notice that your early research also featured VSP data processing. Tell us about that. That is another area in geophysics where the applications have not been picked up by our industry. Your comments?

I began research at ARCO in the VSP group after several years in the data processing center. The conventional surface-seismic processing tools I learned there were very effective for deconvolution and wavefield separation. This was a very exciting time for VSP development in processing, rock physics applications, and imaging. For a while, nearly every well that ARCO drilled had a VSP included with the normal suite of logs. This is where I developed my experience with multicomponent processing and program development.

Perhaps you are right that applications in VSP have not been picked up extensively, but I have not been following it that closely. Early on, imaging in the vicinity of the borehole was oversold a bit because of limited aperture. However, there have been tremendous successes and applications with 3D VSP imaging and mirror migration, anisotropic P- and S-wave velocity analyses, and recently with interferometry.

What are the directions in which the future R & D worldwide is focused in our industry? Any important developments that you think we will see in the next five years?

Yes, recent advancements in computing power and architectures are having and will continue to have a tremendous impact with regard to RTM and FWI. We should see important developments in elastic-wavefield applications for converted waves. I believe it is already beginning to happen.

I notice that you have 7 patents. Do you think patents really help safeguard the technology that one has invented?

Very important question. This is a topic where my opinion has changed over the years. In principal patents are supposed to disseminate knowledge and safeguard technology for the inventor. And it has been successful in some very specific cases if the technology of a device is clearly new and the patent is technically sound and written very carefully. However, I see some being awarded that are clearly not "new technology", and more and more I see them used as a preventative measure.

If not, then how does one safeguard the competitive edge that the new technology can give the company you are working for?

I am not an expert in these legal matters. In this age of fast developing technology, I am not sure it can be done. There seems to always be a way around or loopholes even for the most well written patents. Perhaps the answer is to avoid the patent process all together: publish, establish authority and become a technical leader.

You have been associated with teaching SEG courses. Tell us about that.

I have had the privilege of teaching the "Application and Interpretation of Converted Waves" course with Rob Stewart all over the world. It has been very rewarding and I am glad to see that interest is picking up again. If we can influence the industry into incorporating PS-waves in their interpretations this could be a huge benefit to the industry.

What other ways have you actively volunteered your time with the SEG? Could you tell us why you do this and what the benefits are?

This has been one way I have been able to give back, or contribute to the geophysical community that has supported me throughout my career. I have served on the Development and Production committee, the Research Committee, as a representative for the Denver section, and as vice president and president of the Denver Geophysical Society. Of particular interest for me is continuing education. I think this is very important and I would like to see our societies put more effort into it. After all, education is one of the main purposes of our societies as defined in the bylaws, but sometimes it gets only a fraction of the attention or funding.

Apart from the science that you practice, what other interests do you have?

I like studying most of the other physical sciences as well, as opposed to say reading novels. In terms of the outdoors: hiking, golfing, snow skiing and boarding, and in my younger days, spelunking. I became an active caver in Indiana, and later enjoyed vertical rope work in the Midwest, Mexico and the Rocky Mountains. I also enjoy snorkeling and swimming for exercise. Being a Geologist at heart, I like to be out in nature where there is interaction between rocks and water! And now that I live in California I am considering taking up surfing at the young age of 63.

What would be your message for young geophysicists entering our profession?

Follow your interests, work hard, and don't worry about making changes in your focus along the way. Be open to new ideas, and be self-motivated, involved and active in your professional societies. Approach science and life with the same values: tolerance for opposing views and a hunger for new knowledge.


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