‘It is important to pursue a career not just for the money, but for professional satisfaction…’

An interview with Larry Lines

Coordinated by: Satinder Chopra | Photos courtesy: Penny Colton
Larry Lines

Larry Lines is a well-known name in our industry and academia. He has worked for seventeen years with Amoco in Calgary and Tulsa and has been in Calgary for the last 10 years, holding the Chair in Exploration Geophysics (1997-2002) and heading the Department of Geology and Geophysics (2002-2007) at the University of Calgary. Before coming to Calgary, Larry held the Chair in Applied Seismology at Memorial University of Newfoundland for 4 years. For the last 14 years, Larry has devoted his energies to teaching aspiring geophysics students. His lucid expression and enthusiastic lectures have endeared him to his many students over these year s. Larry’s interests range over a broad spectrum of geophysical topics. He is always supportive of good ideas and has always lent a helping hand in whatever way he possibly could – be it technical suggestions,making contacts, sending communications or anything else.

In addition to doing research work and teaching, Larry has volunteered his services for professional societies. He has served the CSEG as the Journal Editor and the SEG as Geophysics Editor (1997-99), Distinguished Lecturer (1991), Geophysics Associate Editor, SEG Translations Editor, Publications Committee Chair and Slide Editor, and as a member of The Leading Edge Editorial Board.

For his leadership as an educator and for his various services to both the professional societies, Larry is the recipient of the Honorary Membership awards from the CSEG and the SEG. His professional affiliations include SEG, CSEG, EAGE, APEGGA, Geophysical Society of Tulsa, and AAPG.

With characteristic humour and warmth in his talk, it is always a pleasure chatting with Larry and this made the interview a very pleasant and interesting discussion. Following are excerpts from the interview.

Larry, let’s begin by asking you about your educational background and your work experience.

I received my schooling in Athabasca Alberta, and went to University of Alberta for my Bachelors and Masters Degrees in Physics and Geophysics and then went to UBC for my Ph.D. in Geophysics.

My work experience included 17 years with Amoco, both in Amoco Canada and Amoco Research. Then I went to Memorial University in Newfoundland and finally back here at the University of Calgary as Research Chair and then Department Head. I have been back here in Calgary for 10 years.

That means you were always interested in science and that you decided to pursue a career in science?

Yes, I think that my interest was really peaked by having excellent teachers in High School, both in mathematics and physics. They were some of the best teachers in the Province I think. In fact some of these teachers went on to get Ph.D.s and teach at University. I was just lucky that these people were in this Northern Alberta high school just at the right time for me, and this really peaked my interest in science. I wanted to teach Science. Then I received a letter of invitation from the Department of Physics at University of Alberta. This invitation was the result of a national exam. It just so happened that I made the cut and was invited me to come to the UofA. I have had a lot of help along the way in Science.

Who were some of your mentors?

Well, at the University of Alberta I did my M.Sc. with Walter Jones in electromagnetic theory, and then I went to UBC. (I’d spent two degrees at UofA, and it was time to move to another place.) Tad Ulrych was a great mentor there at UBC. Tad then introduced me to the external examiner for my Ph.D., Sven Treitel. Working with Sven and having Sven as a mentor was the most that anyone could ask for in geophysics. It was terrific – not only working with Sven but also with the people he attracted to the Research Lab. I have been very fortunate to be guided by some great mentors.

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[Penny]: Was Sven Treitel at UBC for a while?

No he wasn’t there, but I did visit him in Tulsa. Actually Sven did suggest some topics to me for my thesis when I visited him to obtain data and discuss ideas. As once mentioned by Easton Wren, a visit to Amoco Research was like going to Hollywood. When I went there as a grad student, I saw famous names on the doors like Sven Treitel, Ken Kelly, John Shanks. It was like going to the Avenue of Stars, so it was a very exciting trip. During my visits as a student, I presented informal seminars and was very nervous because there were so many experts in the audience. I think the thing that really impressed me about Sven, in addition to his great knowledge, was that he was such a nice guy. He even arranged my trip or made sure my tickets were confirmed. He is just that kind of person, he is always trying to help people.

Yes, I agree with you. Now looking back, what do you have to say about how your career has shaped up until now?

Well, I have been very fortunate. I just happened to be in many of the right places at the right time. I gained experience as a research scientist at one of the world’s top labs. I returned to Canada as a Professor, first at Memorial University as an NSERC Chair, and subsequently to the University of Calgary, as a Research Chair and then Department Head. The Department Head job was a different experience. But, I think it’s probably a good thing to have done. Now, I am back in research and teaching – both of which I really enjoy.

Larry, you were with Amoco for 17 years, as you said. Tell us some of your experiences there.

Well, it was sort of a baptism by fire. Initially it was great. I worked in the technical group for one year and continued my Ph. D. research. However, the next year I was really immersed into operations, in processing and interpretation. This was during the boom time in the late 1970s at the time of the West Pembina discovery, so in a year or two, many of us inexperienced geophysicists were recommending seismic programs and well recommendations. It was a very exciting time, but I did feel after two years of operations that it was time to return to research so I requested a transfer to Amoco Research. Research at Amoco was a very gratifying experience, until the Research Centre was governed by business units. The advantage of Amoco Research was that we had the funding of industry and almost the freedom of a university. We could publish almost everything that we did, which was the reason I went there. We were able to show much of our work to the world working with a world-class group. I worked in Ken Kelly’s Modeling and Inversion Group, which included Sam Gray, Kurt Marfurt, Ken Kelly, Phil Bording, Dan Whitmore, and many others – it was a terrific group. These people are all in different places today, but they have done well. And yes, I think for the most part it was a great place to work. Penny worked at Amoco too for a while in the Calgary Office.

[Penny]: I did, I remember the huge bookcases in Sven’s office.

That corner office was terrific and Amoco recognized it.

[Penny]: I do actually have a photo I took there.

I remember that was one of the reasons I went there, going to Sven’s corner office and and getting excellent research feedback. On some Fridays we’d smoke cigars and Sam Gray would come down and complain about the smoke. Those were good years.

Larry, what kind of research did you do for your Ph.D.?

My Ph.D. research was in wavelet estimation and deconvolution with Tad Ulrych at UBC. This was a very hot area in the 70s and to some extent, it still is. We tried different methods of wavelet estimation: minimum phase methods, homomorphic deconvolution and others. Tad gave me a lot of support (both financially and intellectually) within a free environment.

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Larry Lines and Satinder Chopra

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

I guess the application of least squares inversion to a lot of different problems including tomography, deconvolution and cooperative inversion, as well as depth migration. A number of the successes took place after I left Amoco, and went to Memorial and the University of Calgary. We used reverse-time, depth migration that I had learned from Dan Whitmore. So I think, both inversion and migration applications were gratifying.

Which one would you say is the most important contribution to geophysics?

Probably the inversion. Migration can be viewed as inversion actually, so I guess you can say that inversion includes just about every type of processing and interpretation that we do.

You just finished your term as the Head of the Department of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Calgary, tell us about the challenges that this position brings along with it and how you were able to meet them.

Fortunately I didn’t know all the challenges when I volunteered to take the job; but we had a lot of challenges including budget cuts, shortages of space, and funding for hiring faculty.

How did you meet them?

I think we met them by being more closely in touch with the industry and getting their interest in our programs and initiating two new programs – Petroleum Geology and Reservoir Characterization.

When we initiated those programs, we were able to get funding from the Provincial Government and were able to hire nine people in the first six months of 2007. We hired a lot of new petroleum faculty – and new instructors (because we have huge number of students coming into the program). So actually, in retrospect it all worked out, but from day to day the Head is always trying to deal with some crisis, and a lot of things that I guess come “out of the blue” sometimes. Problems can come up unexpectedly and absorb your day with unplanned events.

I guess the other challenge was keeping my research going during my time as Department Head. Fortunately for me I was surrounded by a number of very talented grad students, including veterans like Brian Russell and Jon Downton, and a research associate, Pat Daley. Also Joan Embleton, helped me with organizing CHORUS (Consortium for Heavy Oil Research by University Scientists), a new heavy-oil research consortium that we started. So I had a lot of help, and the office staff was terrific. I think our Department staff really works hard and they go far beyond what’s required. I guess playing politics is part of the Head’s job too. You have to know not to over- react while thinking of strategies that will get you through a situation. I think that the Headship taught me how to plan strategically and how to survive adversity.

For some threats, such as the possibility of losing our library, I enlisted some allies in the industry who came to our assistance. Through our Development Office, and Ron Burke, we made a lot of connections with the downtown industry people, and that helped. Some people have said that we have become too oriented to the Petroleum Industry but I think if we don’t do petroleum research here, where will it be done? Petroleum research is not the only thing our Department does, because we are trying to be top-notch in geoscience generally. We also changed the name of the Department to Geoscience – allowing us to inclusive and an expansive. Environmental Science is also expanding in the Department. So I think many good things have happened. I have passed the headship baton to David Eaton, whom I am very happy to see is here as of last week (October 17). Of course the price of oil going to $90.00/bl didn’t hurt our programs either, but we were positioned to take advantage of the situation.

Larry, what personal and professional vision are you working towards now?

Well, professionally I am very interested in reservoir characterization, and the integration of geoscience with engineering. I also work with Joan Embleton in CHORUS, with Rob Stewart and the CREWES crew, with Don Lawton and the FRP consortium, and with AICISE. Most of my research is centered on research consortia.

Personally, I would like to continue in geophysics for a long time but maybe not at the level of being Department Head and a Researcher. That is, I’d like to continue in this field but not 70 hours a week. I think retirement should be tapered, since you don’t want Gibb’s phenomenon with sharp cut-offs. I prefer a taper to the frenetic pace. This is a problem with life in Calgary – is it is certainly hard to taper the pace of activities. In this city, we are always expanding. There always seems to be more and more to do and less time to do it, but I hope to take some time to spend with family, friends and my dog. So that is the personal side of things. It would be enjoyable to travel a bit, without rushing from city to city. Yeah, one should hopefully enjoy life.

Larry, your research efforts have focused on seismic imaging, inversion and reservoir characterization; could you tell us in a general sense about the different problems you have tackled in each of these areas?

Yes, lets make a list of them here:

  1. Imaging, I guess the imaging list would include 3D depth migration of Hibernia data and anisotropic depth migration of Foothills data here in Alberta and the general prestack depth migration velocity analysis.
  2. Inversion, I guess it started with deconvolution and went to tomography and then cooperative (joint) inversion of different data sets, which led into reservoir characterization
  3. Reservoir characterization where we are trying to analyze the geophysical/ geological and reservoir engineering data to try to essentially jointly find suitable models for all data. In terms of reservoir applications, heavy oil fields in Western Canada and also in West Texas would be on the list.

Apart from these three main areas, what other areas of geophysics fascinate you? You may not have worked so closely in them but still you find them interesting?

I think that fluid flow and using waves (seismic and electromagnetic) to define fluids in rocks. If we integrate our efforts with the engineers we have to focus on fluid flow in porous media, and as geophysicists we are experts in waves. Therefore, I think the applications of waves describing reservoir fluid changes would be an area, and also not only in the reservoir but in the environmental areas too. I think there are many applications of geophysics to the description of fluid flow. One of my colleagues, Larry Bentley, was in both the reservoir and environmental fields. He tells me that he is completely going to the environmental side.

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[Penny]: I notice a fair number of graduates from UofC are in environmental sciences. I noticed, from the list of graduating students last spring, there was a fair number that said their specialty is not geology or geophysics, it’s in environmental geoscience. Are they in the Department of Geology and Geophysics (now Department of Geoscience).

They are in our Department; that’s the third stream in our Department – the Applied Environmental Stream, I think that is a really good sign, because one of the big challenges of our Province and Country is the use of water and the availability of water ,and being able to develop resources with water in mind. I think the hydro area is a big one for the future geophysics, and the atmospheric sciences as well. I do not want to get into the climate change argument right now, but I think all of these areas are coupled. These environmental problems are really important, they are going to be key to our future. I often discuss this with my daughter, Dr. Wendy Benoit, who has a Ph.D. in chemistry about these topics. She tells me that geoscientists need to pay more attention to the environment. She is right, I think. We just can’t blindly develop these resources without being tuned in to the environmental consequences. I think it is becoming apparent to us, not just as scientists, but also as citizens, and that’s a big part of the future in geoscience research. I am glad to see the environmental programs strengthening at U of C and in other Universities.

What are the directions in which the R&D world-wide is focused in our industry and what important developments do you think our people can expect in the near future after the advent of the 3D technology, do you think there is anything path breaking that is going to show up in the future?

As I mentioned, environmental and the reservoir problems really have similar needs in the sense of coupling our observations and models with the fluid flow models. The way to couple the models is going to require a greater knowledge of rock physics, so I think that many of us will soon become students of rock physics In other words, we (as exploration geophysicists) estimate seismic velocities probably better than any other physical quantity. How is that velocity related to porosity, permeability, and viscosity? Apparently viscosity is the biggest problem for heavy oil recovery, along with permeability. Also, permeability is important for both environmental models and the reservoir models. How do we utilize geophysics both in the reservoir characterization and in the environmental models? I think that integration of geology, geophysics and reservoir engineering is the key. We geophysicists are essentially the “radiologists” of the oil industry, the geologists are the “internists” and the engineers are the “ surgeons”. We need to couple these disciplines together. I think that if anyone in the petroleum industry can make that coupling they will find it to be very fruitful. Integration is the big area.

Would you like to tell us about some of the new technology ideas you and your students are working on these days?

For the next five years I hope to focus on cooperative inversion of reservoir data. In other words, finding earth models whose responses match both the geoscience data, (seismic, well logs, and core descriptions) as well as the reservoir production history data. I call that cooperative inversion. We have done this in geophysics with seismic data, potential field data, and EM data. I think we know how to do this, it’s just a matter of getting the modeling and the cost functions, and then fitting these data sets. If they don’t fit, we alter our models to provide better model fits to all data sets.

Here we have the problems of scaling this well, and the geophysical model blocks are different than the engineering blocks. How do we scale one up or down to match the other? How do we use rock physics to convert geo-blocks into reservoir engineering blocks?

Larry, you have published two books through the CSEG and the SEG. Could you share with us some of your writing experiences?

They are probably re-writing experiences because I am not a person who can sit down and just write a book from scratch. I have co-authored three books with CSEG and SEG. The CSEG Depth Imaging Book was basically a collection of research papers. The SEG book on interpretation was based on teaching the course for a lot of years and having one of my excellent TAs, as a co-author. The TAwas Dr. Rachel Newrick, who was exceptionally good and exceptionally persuasive (able to manage her supervisors), and she probably wrote the best chapter of that book. Both the interpretation book and the book that I wrote with Phil Bording on wave equation modeling and imaging, were basically written for courses. These books arose out of teaching a course and getting student feedback. In the interpretation course, I promised the students a beer if they would find a mistake in the book. I did that after I had almost finished the book so I wouldn’t have to buy much beer. Anyhow, the students provided a lot of feedback, and the books were basically tools to achieve a goal of teaching. For me, writing is really an iterative process. Hopefully the iterations converge at some stage.

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Let’s ask you about your impression about the current state of the Canadian Universities in general and then with respect to Geophysics in particular. How do they compare with other North American Universities and you might also want to touch upon issues that Universities face in terms of funding, abundance or the dearth of students or whatever other problems?

I have been at four different universities here in Canada, and based on my experiences, I think that the Canadian universities are a great bargain for the students. In terms of the tuition we charge and what we provide in an education, I think it’s about ten times better (in cost) than what they would pay commercially. Not that commercial is bad, but I think that if they take advantage of a University education, they get it as a bargain. Our Canadian universities are doing an excellent job in applied geophysics, taking theory and applying it to data applications. Canadians have led the world in many areas of seismic and mining technology, In terms of measures such as numbers of papers presented at exploration geophysics meetings, the University of Calgary is usually among the top five universities in the world.

In terms of university funding, I think it is good to not just be in one camp. I wouldn’t want to see us only relying on government funding, because industry funding supports much of what we do in applied geophysics. I think it is good to have a balance. The geophysics programs in Canada are generally doing a good job. Our students are widely sought by companies not only locally, but also internationally. Also, we need to remember to educate and not just train. The temptation is to provide just a focused training for students to come to the oil patch but I believe companies want students to have a broadly based education.

We do need to do a better job of exposing the High Schools to Earth Sciences. We need to be recruiting students aggressively, with offers of scholarships. Professors need to phone these prospective students telling them about our programs, while welcoming them to enroll in geoscience. We at the University need to couple ourselves to the community and its needs.

Do you get enough students at the University of Calgary, would you like to have more, or is it the maximum you can handle?

We are bursting at the seams right now with students. That’s a good problem. I am glad to see it, because we have this big “ crew change” coming up in the industry. We are going to need these students to develop into future geoscientists. I think that one of the goals would be to inform and enlighten the High School Students about the future of careers in Geophysics. Penny has done a lot in that area with APPEGA at the High Schools. Penny’s work is great, we need more of it. I don’t know what your experience was with getting people to help out but...

[Penny]: I think while I was most impressed, actually what the CSEG is doing with seismic in motion getting all the 7th to 9th graders out on the field, I think they really need to be complimented for. Plus we have a lot of volunteers that go into schools and give presentations, even down to the 3rd or 4th Grade level where sometimes they cover rocks and minerals. They have programs to bring students to our Conventions. These students started at Grade 9 and a group of students from B.C., Canmore and Golden came to our Convention two years ago.

Another area that I try to work with Development Office on is the creation of Scholarships for students. The students often decide on a University, based on Scholarships and financial support. Also, I think that students are spending too much of their term time on part-time jobs and not necessarily related to their field of study. Concerning students’ financial stresses I think we need to do a better job, both with our government and with our industry support of students. I think that is an area that is more stressful today than it was when I was a University student since there was much more Government support than there is now. We should tell our Legislators we need more scholarships, grants and loans. I didn’t feel that much financial stress as a student, even though I come from a farm family that did not have a huge income. Students in those days had the financial support from the Provincial Government and Federal Government. I think that we need to do a better job of educational support.

Larry, you mentioned about a good number of students coming to the Geology and Geophysics departments at University of Calgary; would you like to comment on the quality of these students also?

Well, I guess like most places, it is mixed. I think it is interesting that it is not always the students with the highest grades that do the best in industry. Therefore, I think we should not be too exclusive in our acceptance of students. One thing that does bother me somewhat is that many of our B.Sc graduates don’t consider graduate school as much as I think they might. Too few consider graduate school as an option and even fewer desire to attain graduate school admission. Nowadays I think that the M.Sc. is becoming the preferred degree, as opposed to a Bachelors degree. Also, more Ph.D.s are being hired as well. Those extra years in graduate school can be worthwhile.

I may have a somewhat biased view on the quality of students. By the time I teach them, they are in the 4th year, so I probably live in a fool’s paradise. I get many of the best students anyhow and I try to recruit some of them as grad students. I think our students do a very good job in a lot of areas with running and programming computers. They do a great job of creating PowerPoint slides. We need to work a bit more on their science writing and with their oral presentations, and perhaps in their level of mathematical aptitude. In summary, it is a privilege to work with them.

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You have been elected as the President-elect for the SEG now. What are some of the ideas you intend to implement during your term starting next year that you think will make a difference to the SEG membership?

I outlined some of these ideas in the November Leading Edge President’s Page entitled—Preparations for the Great Crew Change. We have demographics in our Industry that is somewhat scary. A lot of people are nearing retirement age, so we are going to need many new employees, the students that will come into the work force.

Therefore, it is essential to support the education of these future employees. I would see that there are about three different things we can do here:

  1. Scholarship support as I mentioned earlier from the SEG through the Foundation, which is expanding – very good thing;
  2. Enhancing publications. Satinder, you were on the SEG Publications Committee, so I think you would appreciate how useful the SEG Publications have been especially with your work with the RECORDER and your book with Kurt Marfurt. So these are some areas. I think this is a great service to the Industry.
  3. Continuing education. We need to expand the breadth of our courses and to improve other courses we have. Continuing education is a big part of what we need to do, not just for the recent graduates but also for enhancing the knowledge of the people in the Industry. In summary, those three areas, certainly would all tie in to the Great Crew Change, as they call it, so I hope to visit, not just the SEG Sections, but Universities during my Sabbatical Year.

In addition to preparing for the Crew Change, there is also our stewardship of the environmental aspects of our planet. We extract a lot from the planet, but what are we doing to make sure we don’t totally exploit it to the point where it is not a livable place. We need to care for our atmosphere and water while wisely managing our resources. People say there are jobs in environmental geophysics and I think certainly there are. I think there is a lot out there with ground penetrating radar, shallow seismic surveys, electrical surveys and potential fields. There are many geophysical applications in environmental areas. So I think there are the two main areas in which I would like to see SEG progress: enhance education of future employees for our industry and the advancement of environmental geophysics.

What are your other interests?

I believe it is good to have interests outside of geophysics. I have an interest in sled dogs and enjoy hiking with Denali, my Alaskan Malamute. I appreciate music, art and reading. In particular, I like singing in a local choir. And I enjoy sports. I often play on a softball team and participate in our annual Faculty Student Game. I like watching sports and discussing sports history. It is also important to spend quality time with my family (Shirley, Andrew; Wendy and Craig) and with many friends. So I guess those are all interests that I have.

Larry what would be your message for young geophysicists entering our profession?

I think the key is to find a job that you enjoy. It is important to pursue a career not just for the money; but also for the professional satisfaction – so that you enjoy going to work. In our pursuit of making a living, we should enjoy life, family, friends and nature. Good health is very important. Work/life balance is a term that is used now. It is tough to accomplish this balance because you want to excel in your profession, yet I think there are many other things outside the office. In fact, as you talk to people who finished their careers, they usually speak of a common theme. I have heard people say they wished they had spent more time with their family and friends, but very few of them ever say that they wished they had spent more hours at the office. So I think that one has to remember the things that are really important and have a balance.

One final question, was there any question that you wanted me to ask and I forgot or missed?

Oh, I think you covered just about everything. I can’t think of any off hand. It was quite a comprehensive list of questions. Thanks.


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