Marianne, let us begin by asking about your educational background and work experience.
In 1985, I received a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from the Karl Franzens University in Graz, Austria. In 1988, I immigrated with my family to Australia and started my career at Curtin University in Perth as a research assistant. Since then, I have worked in academia and with service and operating companies worldwide. My main area of expertise is seismic, with some potential field work mixed in.
The first 15 years or so of your professional life were spent in Australia, working for different companies, and since 2003 you have been working in the US and Canada. How come you decided to make this transition?
During the early stages of my career, I worked in an academic environment, studying rock properties and doing inversion and AVO analysis. Australia is a wonderful place to work and live, but I wanted to be closer to the “movers and shakers” of industry, so when I had an opportunity to transfer to Houston, I took it.
What differences in work culture did you experience between the companies you worked for in Australia, and then the US?
I left Australia in 1999. In those days, the work environment “Down Under” was more relaxed and less structured compared to the USA; however, the actual work ethic and profit orientation were very similar, so it wasn’t difficult to adjust to working there. I was excited about having the chance to finally meet all the experts that I had known of from studying their work. Many of them have become good friends and sources of inspiration for my projects.
What has been your philosophy towards your professional growth?
I have always worked hard. I am willing to take risks and when I believe in something, am not shy to express my beliefs and share my knowledge. From early on, I published and presented. This gave me exposure to the wider geoscience community.
What personal traits do you think helped you become successful in the oil and gas industry?
I am very success-driven, hardworking, and don’t give up easily. I never stop studying and learning and, as a result, growing professionally. My goal is always to stay at the forefront of technological advancement and not be afraid of new concepts. I think the main reason why I am a successful person in the oil and gas industry is that I am passionate about my science! During a typical week, I spend most of my waking hours working. I would never have gotten where I am if I hadn’t made geophysics my own!
Tell us about some memorable moments in your professional life, and a success story, if the two are different?
I find it especially satisfying when I receive a phone call telling me that my seismic data analysis has resulted in a successful exploration well. As I am not directly involved in the drilling process, but provide more or less a service to the business units, this is always thrilling! I am also very happy that, after years of lobbying, more and more operators are using PSDM imaging, even in areas where the targets are reasonably flat. Any time I propose and promote a new technology and then it is implemented by the geophysical community, it’s a success story!
Tell us about the most difficult challenge that you may have faced in your professional life.
My degree is in physics, and while I didn’t have many female colleagues in this field, there was a fairly reasonable female-male ratio. When I started to work in geophysics, I realized that most of the time I was the only female in the room. So, I think overcoming traditional gender inequality in the oil industry was possibly my most difficult challenge. Things have changed a lot and I know now that when I am treated differently because I am a woman, this is not on purpose. I am confident that the subtleties will disappear because the younger generations don’t seem to worry about gender much anymore.
Knowing you, you are a firm believer in new technology. Over the years, what new technological ideas have you assimilated in your career, which ones didn’t you adopt at the time, what was the outcome of that, and why do you believe so?
A long time ago, at the beginning of my career, I was involved in an industry consortium that promoted AVO. It’s hard to believe now, but it took years before the industry started to use AVO to find sweet spots, especially for gas reservoirs. Over the last few years, I have been pushing PSDM for geologically benign areas. I got, and still get, a lot of pushback asking, ‘Why do you need to do this if you have no structure?’ PSTM has imbedded limitations that are carried over to the depth domain when you stretch the time data to depth using a velocity field. Therefore, it will never accurately account for laterally changing velocity variations or velocity inversions in, for example, relatively thin reservoir beds. I actually think that our industry is at times too conservative, and it seems to take a lot of time and proof of concept before new technologies are routinely used.
More recently, you have been a big proponent of impedance inversion in depth? Tell us why, especially when there may be issues with the spatial and temporal variation of the wavelet in the depth domain?
We spend an enormous amount of effort performing PSDM and then we stretch the carefully imaged product to time. Every stretch introduces errors and, especially in unconventional reservoirs, we cannot afford to lose even the smallest amount of resolution and accuracy. It is clear that inverting the data in depth has its challenges, but we have performed some tests that show that we can overcome those. More work regarding the depth wavelet variation is currently being carried out. So far, we haven’t seen the limits of this method, but I am sure there are limitations. We just need to push the envelope further and, when we find them, work on overcoming them.
These days, reservoir characterization of unconventional shale resources is popular in North America. What do you think are the challenges associated with accurate characterization of such formations, and how can we address them?
Geophysics in unconventional shale resources is very difficult – much more difficult than in even the most challenging conventional settings. Often, our reservoirs are deep, around 5 kilometers. Although the shale interval is often a few hundred meters thick, the actual high TOC, tight rock property stringers that we penetrate through lateral drilling are only in the order of 10 meters thick. As such, every small improvement in the seismic processing steps counts. We at Devon spend a lot of time researching the latest processing techniques and then applying them. I believe that neural network applications will help us with this.
What new technological ideas do you have in mind at present, which, given an opportunity, you would like to apply to real seismic data?
I would like to be able to model all recorded wave modes and then remove them from the seismic image and keep only the modes I am interested in – such as reflections or diffractions. This sounds straightforward, but it is very complex because we need to have an excellent near-surface velocity model. We often don’t have that onshore, and at times also have to deal with the sparsity of our seismic data. However, I have seen some companies going in this direction, and even saw a slide during a presentation pointing out there is no noise, just waves! Machine learning could play a big role in this. At the moment, we are peeling an onion and performing a large number of noise attenuation steps in various domains. If we could model the wave modes that generate the “noise,” we could remove them all at once and save ourselves a lot of time.
What other areas of geophysics fascinate you?
Land seismic. I love the challenges this brings. Whenever we think we’ve solved a problem, 10 others show up and we can never just sit back and stop learning and growing. For example, I worked offshore Western Australia which has huge multiple issues because of the very fast seafloor. I then started to work onshore, and had to deal with even more challenging interbed multiple issues! The velocity variations between primaries and multiples are very small, so Radon or FK filters are not useful. In addition, work done by various people in the industry and in-house at Devon show that you need some of these very short-period multiples to even have an interface! But this causes other issues, like the event occurring later because the multiples bounce back and forth until they finally reach the receiver. Obviously, this bouncing back and forth adds to the travel time. Plus, the frequencies are lower than they should be. And there are other issues related to this. So, how are you going to unravel this? Do you even want to remove them? What will happen to your reflectors from the interface that you want to see? More questions than answers!
You have an interest in teaching, as you teach continuing education courses with the University of Oklahoma. Tell us about that experience, and how you decided to get into this.
I believe we all should give back to society. I have been very fortunate to be able to acquire a lot of knowledge in the field of geophysics during my career, and I feel I should pass on some of this. I also love working with other professionals and young people. I get the best ideas when I can discuss subjects with my peers. When I teach, I try to do it in a discussion mode. I hope I can do more teaching when I get closer to the end of my career, in the private sector.
Here is a philosophical question for you. What would be your take on the quote ‘one person with a belief is as good as ninety-nine with an interest’? Do you think belief or faith in a technology is more important than just being interested in it?
We must be careful how we use the word “faith,” as it implies that we don’t need the proof but have to believe. From a scientific point of view, I don’t agree with this. There should always be a sound scientific argument behind everything you do. On the other hand, if you believe, because of the work you have done, that you have something new, interesting and different, then don’t get discouraged by people telling you it can’t be done. I am more of a person who says: “Why not? Be passionate!”
You are a member of different professional societies, namely SEG, EAGE, HGS, AAPG, Geological Society of London and Geological Society of Austria. Tell us, how much does it help you in your career?
These memberships help me stay in touch with the wider geophysical society. It is easy to become isolated – we are so busy with our daily jobs – we forget that other experts are doing great things. By reading the journals and attending the conventions, I can keep in touch, meet with peers for in-depth geophysical discussions and keep learning. This is very important for your company, and also for you!
The current downturn has persisted ‘lower for longer,’ for reasons that we all know. Do you think the end is in sight? Will the oil companies start investing in exploration, which can start translating into accretion of reserves globally, or we will continue to drill the established reserves, and reach a critical situation?
We work in a cyclical business, and it’s not my job to try to forecast commodity prices or investment decisions. From a geophysical perspective, I think we are slowly learning that not all shale is equal. We geophysicists need to invest more in generating products that engineers want to use. I have been working on onshore pore-pressure prediction using geomechanics and inversion products. It’s a complex, integrated way to predict small-scale but important pressure variations in the drilling interval. We are still learning how to do this best, but I am confident that we are getting there, as the current results are very promising. Our profession has been slow to change from a conventional, seismic-driven exploration scenario to an unconventional, engineering-driven world, and this has to change.
Apart from the science that you practice, what other interests do you have?
grew up in a 500-person village in the Austrian Alps surrounded by nature and couldn’t wait to get to an age when I could leave. Now, as I’ve gotten older, all I want to do is go back to the mountains. I love hiking through wilderness and not be around people all the time. I also love traveling the world, reading and spending a lot of time with my children and my puppies. I would say that I am adventurous and hope to carry on loving and experiencing new things for as long as possible.
What would be your message for young geophysicists entering our profession?
Follow your passion! Whatever you do, be passionate! Don’t go into a profession because it seems to pay well. There are many people who do that – you would be one of many and not make a success of yourself. But if you truly love what you do, you will always do fine! And never stop learning. Be curious! Always want to know more. Never take “no” for an answer and be brave!