Geophysics Would Be My Destiny

An interview with Marilyn Mawdsley

Coordinated by: Satinder Chopra | Photos courtesy: Melanie Bauce
Marilyn Mawdsley

Marilyn Mawdsley (P.Geoph.) is currently the Principal Geophysicist at her own consulting company, Mawdsley Exploration Inc. Marilyn has formally been involved in the industry for 30 years however. Having been born and bred in Calgary she has been exposed to the industry’s good times and bad throughout her lifetime. Marilyn has had a very diverse and interesting career, initially spending 13 years at PanCanadian before entering the consulting and junior producer realm. Marilyn recently sat down with Satinder Chopra to share some very interesting career highlights and perspectives on the technical, business and human side of the industry.

How did you get into the oil industry?

I was born into the industry. My father was a geologist during the golden days of frontier exploration in Alberta. He started his career at Texaco which was later sold to Exxon in the late 1980s, long after my Dad left there. During the late ‘60s early ‘70s my father founded and operated his own small company called Uplands Exploration. My first pay cheque was from Uplands. I still vividly remember this first day that I worked for him when I was about ten years old. It was an old-style of work with no computers; I hand-coloured his maps and filed paper well logs. I was paid $4 for two hours of work after school. I was thrilled to have that cheque to take to the bank.

Please tell us about your educational background and your work experience.

Since my Dad was a geologist, my education began in the back seat of a 1960s Pontiac during road trips in Alberta and Saskatchewan. I heard endless geological lessons about surface glacial features, the McConnell Thrust and, since my Dad’s MSc. involved paleontology, I endured lectures about various fossil classifications. Abstract math concepts came easily to me so after high-school I enrolled in engineering. At the time I had not considered geophysics as a career. I discovered geophysics during my third year in engineering when the U of C Earth Science department was looking for an electrical engineering (EE) grad to work on a Master’s project in Geophysics. This piqued my interest and I realized that geophysics would be my destiny. I however completed my electrical engineering degree and took all the EE courses that were in any way transferable to geophysics. This included signal processing of course. PanCanadian hired me in 1985 and I worked there for almost 14 years. During that period I continued to study in the evenings in order to quality for a P.Geoph registration with APEGA. It was always my desire to have the option to work as a consultant, so I was determined to get the APEGA designation. I am dually registered by the way, P.Eng, P.Geoph. I worked three years in PCP’s geophysics operations group. Managing acquisition (instrumentation) and processing projects was EE related. I eventually transferred to a district at PCP and became involved in exploration projects.

Our readers would like to get to know you better, so tell us about yourself.

I have two older brothers, one is also an earth scientist, turned financial analyst, in Calgary and the other is a family physician in Victoria. My mother is a nurse. My great uncle J.B. Mawdsley was a geologist and he was hired by the University of Saskatchewan in the early part of the last century to establish their Geological Engineering department. So there is a strong scientific and technical trend in my family which I have inherited. I am married to Jim Pullishy, a geophysicist. He works at Repsol, a company which recently took over Talisman. Jim and I used to talk a lot at home about geophysics but once we had a child the focus of our conversations changed drastically. Our son Michael is 16 years old. Not surprisingly, our son is mathematically inclined and has excellent visual and special aptitudes. We, all the three of us, love to ski and hike in the mountains. Michael loves maps and from a very young age has guided me and Jim on many off-trail adventures. Michael and I are both very musical as well. I play the piano and I sing.

You have been in the industry for over 30 years. What changes have you witnessed during this period in terms of job prospects, work environment or other aspects you would like to tell us?

Looking back thirty years and even further back to when I was a child colouring prospect maps for my father, I see dramatic changes. Everything used to be done by hand and on paper at a drafting table. Now everything is done on computer. There are great gains in efficiency with computers. I do enjoy though the rare occasions when I can work by hand and on paper. I still like to colour maps by hand as I am a bit of an artist. Smoking was still permitted in offices when I graduated from university and for a few years after. Job prospects are always varying. That is the way the industry has always been. Job prospects are poor now but as it has always been in this volatile industry, job prospects will change and improve, and then in a few years will decline again.

You had the longest innings at PanCanadian Petroleum / EnCana. Thereafter, a few years is all you stayed in some of the other companies.

Tell us how that happened. I stayed at PanCanadian for almost fourteen years because during most of that time the company had a gifted leader, David O’Brien. It was a time of intense exploration there and I feel so grateful to have had the opportunity to observe and work for one great leader. After fourteen years I was ready for a change and moved into the junior producer and consulting world. I also had a child around that time so consulting was a great way for me to work and to also have the flexibility to be the kind of parent that I needed to be. During that time on two occasions I joined junior companies because they wanted me to work full-time with the team and I was available temporarily to do so. I also had stock options in these situations. My time at the two junior companies was short, less than two years, either because the company was sold, as with Flagship Energy, and I went back to consulting or because projects were limited, as with Range Petroleum, due to low oil or gas prices. With Range I chose to resign and start consulting.

What career accomplishments are you most proud of?

For me it is most satisfying when I create maps which integrate all the available data (seismic, well logs, production data, geology from core and surface where available) to create an easily understood picture of the subsurface. It is also satisfying when my interpretation has a realistic illustration of the risk and a reasonable estimate of error. I have worked a wide range of play-types, structural and stratigraphic, and have experienced the thrill of tapping fantastic reservoirs in the BC Foothills, Deep Basin and Australia; however I am most proud of my most well-crafted and fully integrated data interpretations.

You have a proven record of success in a wide range of oil and gas play-types in Western Canada, North America and globally. Tell us about some of the projects in each of these areas.

At PCP I was able to work across a broad expanse of western Canada from western Manitoba to north east BC and created seismically derived subsurface stratigraphic and structural maps from the Ordovician through to the Cretaceous. At PCP I also had the opportunity to work on seismic from Australia’s NW Shelf mapping Jurassic stratigraphic and structural prospects. As a consultant I have carried on with projects in wide range of areas from the BC foothills to Saskatchewan. More recently my focus has been supporting the planning of optimal well trajectories for horizontal wells. I like change and variety.

How do you like your life as a geophysical consultant now?

It is perfect for me right now, as it gives me the flexibility to balance my personal and professional needs. As a consultant I miss however the satisfaction of working daily with a multi-disciplinary team. As a consultant I work a wide variety of projects and areas and I work with many different people. I like this, not being restricted to a small area.

What do you think is required to be a successful geophysical consultant?

It is essential to manage and control the cost of overhead. Since the industry is so volatile it is important to be able to downsize quickly and easily. Additionally it is essential to understand what the client wants and needs, deliver this quickly and efficiently, and then leave the final product on the client’s table. In my experience as a consultant it is necessary to stay out of the strategy and planning process. After 15 years at exploration and production companies, involvement in strategic planning however was the hardest thing for me to let go.

How much use do you make of seismic attributes in your work?

I make use of attribute analysis whenever the data quality is sufficient. As well, for new seismic data acquisition I always aim to acquire enough control and adequate sampling density to support AVAz, AVO, and rock property analysis.

Do you think they add value to your interpretation?

Attributes in conjunction with structural and stratigraphic interpretation absolutely add value to interpretation. By tying in all available well, seismic and production data we can high-grade production areas and mitigate risk. There is always risk even in areas of established production.

The conventional exploration/development in Alberta is on the wane. Do you agree with that statement, and do you think there is enough potential here in Alberta to let us remain employed?

I agree that conventional exploration in Alberta is waning. It has been waning for the past ten years. Career potential depends on the individual and each person’s unique career wants and desires. We need to be open to opportunities internationally. I think that we Canadian geophysicists can succeed exporting our skills and knowledge in processing and interpretative structural and stratigraphic mapping. Closer to home, there recently has been and still is conventional exploration potential in Saskatchewan and British Columbia. In my experience with development, seismic can be very useful in many cases for planning horizontal wells. As I said earlier, there is always risk, structural and stratigraphic, even in areas of established production. Seismic reviews can help mitigate these risks by helping to plan well trajectories in advance of drilling. This understanding does not need to come at a significant cost especially if existing trade data is available.

Do you think new geophysical technologies hold the promise of extraction of more information for characterizing unconventional reservoirs?

I believe so. We need to promote these technologies to exploitation team leaders. In the current state of the industry these team leaders are most likely to be engineers. I find that engineers can readily understand the concrete geo-mechanical concepts of rock properties such as Young’s modulus, Poisson’s ratio and bulk modulus. As a result it is not a stretch to promote the usefulness of lambda-rho/mhu-rho analysis, which was developed by Bill Goodway while I was at PCP, to extract more useful information about incompressibility and shear rigidity. This can typically be achieved without incurring significant extra capital expense. We should continue to, and increase our efforts to correlate these data extractions to existing well production. This information can help us to more effectively identify the best possible production locations.

In geophysics do we really come across great bursts of brilliance, as when 3D seismic happened, followed by some strong silences? Do you agree with this statement?

I think perhaps not. I would guess that if one tracked technological development over 60 years or so I think that there would be a rather steady increase in technological developments that could be correlated to technological developments in our wider society. During the 1980s the industry progressed from analog cable transmission sampled in dog-house to distributed digital recording systems. This was in-sync with other industries such as telecommunications, music recording and medical imaging. Recent developments in wireless acquisition technology are in-step with advances again in telecommunications and medical diagnostics. I think that we continue to work to improve on essentially the same problem as geophysicists did 60 years ago. We are still optimizing subsurface sampling to gain the best possible signal and noise attenuation while controlling cost and environmental disruption as much as possible. Moving from analog cable to distributed digital systems allowed for easier acquisition of 3D seismic which led to workstations and computer visualization much like in medical imaging – echocardiograms, CT scans. Increased sampling allows for improved noise attenuation and attribute analysis just like in medical imaging. Interestingly, my optometrist recently did a coherency scan to map my retina. Currently, and similarly to medical diagnostics and communications we are now recording wireless seismic data.

In terms of other experience, you are associated with the Kensington Sinfonia Society, the Calgary Boys’ Choir, and the Foothills Nordic Ski Club. Could you let us know about some of these roles that you discharge?

Since I work mostly independently as a consultant, serving on non-profit boards satisfies my need to work on a multi-disciplinary team to guide an organization’s vision, growth and development. As a consultant I don’t partake in this with oil companies so I currently do this with non-profit organizations that have a mission which I am compelled to support. I have a lifelong interest in music and skiing so as a result I find myself supporting these organizations in Calgary. I admire and appreciate the coaches, artists, and artistic directors who operate these programs that are so necessary for the healthy growth and development of the artistic and athletic skills of teenagers beyond school. Currently I am Biathlon- Member-at Large for the Foothills Nordic Ski Club and previously I was President of The Calgary Boys’ Choir. Board membership for The Calgary Boys’ Choir was very diverse. Since music is universal there was representation from members from a variety of backgrounds and nationalities, many were recent immigrants to Canada. As a result I found it to be an interesting challenge to chair these board meetings for The Calgary Boys’ Choir. I learned a lot from this experience.

What are your other interests?

With respect to music performance, I have recently taken up singing with the encouragement of my excellent voice teacher Celia Lee. I recently performed a bluegrass trio piece at my father’s memorial service and I am currently working on a Mendelssohn solo for a Sunday church service. In the outdoors I love hiking, ski-touring, downhill and cross-country skiing and sea-kayaking. This summer my family went on a fabulous sea-kayak tour on the west coast of Vancouver Island in the Broken Islands Group near Ucluelet. To keep fit I have recently been training for and competing in triathlons. For relaxation I am a very casual golfer and fly-fisher. As well for relaxation I like to read historical fiction. Last year I finally finished ‘War and Peace’. ‘The Prize’ is another book that I enjoyed reading, the history of the oil industry.

To do well in life, or reach the top quickly, some people opine that one should set one’s goals as wildly ambitious. How would you react to that statement?

I would say that wildly ambitious goals could lead to great disappointment. However I do believe that there is benefit to goal setting and big dreams. There is an element of luck and fate though in one’s career. I think that is it useful to stay open minded to unforeseen opportunities that might develop. Life has taken me in many positive directions that I never anticipated.

On the lighter side, Marilyn, it is said never forget what people say to you when they are angry – that’s when the truth comes out. Has something like that ever happened with you?

Yes, people have been angry with me on occasion but I feel that they were misguided. So I did not give much weight or attention to their words. I have said what I thought was the truth when I was angry but I don’t think that my truth at the time was heard when it was spoken in anger. Best to just go for a walk and table the discussion for a time when everyone is calm.

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

Currently, jobs for new entrants, as well as for experienced geophysicists, are scarce in this industry. I would tell a new entrant not to despair if a traditional stream job at multi-national is not an option at the moment. Stay open-minded to opportunities at service companies. Transfer overseas if the opportunity arises, especially if still young and without children. There is a whole world of projects to do that are truly fulfilling and rewarding, and which may lead in any number of unique and interesting directions. I asked a new grad who I know, Vincent Prenioslo, if most new graduates still aspire to landing a job at a multi-nationals as they did in previous decades and when I graduated in the mid 1980s. I understand this is still the preferred career route however Vince agrees with me that there are great opportunities at oil-patch service companies and in the field. I would suggest also to new grads, or any professional for that matter, to stay engaged by volunteering on CSEG and CSPG committees. Committee work is a great way to learn and contribute to the geoscience community and to make new connections.


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