An interview with Donald Lawton

Coordinated by: Satinder Chopra | Photos courtesy: Vince Law
Donald Lawton

Dr. Donald Lawton recently completed his five-year term as Head of the Department of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Calgary. He is now taking over the Chair in Exploration Geophysics. Satinder, Oliver and Helen took this opportunity to visit Don and record his reflections on five years as head as well as his vision for the future.

[Oliver]: You recently stepped down as Head of Geology and Geophysics?

I completed my five-year term on June 30th of last year. I’m the new Chair in Exploration Geophysics, so at the end of the day, Larry (Lines) and I changed jobs.

[Oliver]: Looking back on your tenure as head, what was your biggest challenge?

I had a lot of juggling to do to maintain a research career as well as deal with the administrative issues that have been devolved to departments. Over the past 3-4 years there has been a lot of planning. Our president has said that we can’t be all things to all people and last year came out with a new academic plan “Raising our Sights” that has identified four core areas where we will concentrate resources: Energy and the Environment, Technologies and Information, Health and Wellness and Understanding Human Behaviour, Institutions and Culture. The institution wanted each department to do a benchmarking exercise - a self evaluation of where we thought our department sat relative to other departments in Canada and internationally.

[Helen]: How did you measure that? Number of papers published, number of graduates, that sort of thing?

A whole range of things. Yes, number of papers published, performance in national grant council funding, level of industrial funding, number of graduates, success of graduates in finding employment, success in their careers, awards to faculty members and students, size of undergraduate classes, quality of students coming into the programme. We had to take all of these factors and assess ourselves; then two external reviewers, esteemed academics in Canada, reviewed our report and gave feedback to the institution. That helped the institution develop this plan to put resources into areas that either have established strengths, or should have, based on our location, interest in the community, etc. The theme of Energy and the Environment came from both the expectation that the university in this city should be strong in this field and also because of the demonstrated strength in our and other departments.

[Oliver]: Generally, how did you measure up?

We measured up really well. We are viewed as one of the top departments in Canada. We have the highest enrolment both at undergraduate and graduate level of any institution in Canada.

[Helen]: Graduate students are getting jobs, how about the undergrads?

The market has softened compared to the mid-late 90s when there was a stronger demand for undergrads. There has been a shift towards companies wanting to hire M.Sc. students. Good B.Sc. students will find employment but average students will take a little longer and they tend to get short-term contract work rather than a career path. I don’t view this as a healthy use of human resources. In geophysics it happened earlier than in geology and since the early 90’s we’ve seen graduate students being preferred, both at the M.Sc. and Ph.D. level. B.Sc. Geology students were getting jobs but now we see a move toward M.Sc. being the desired entry level. It’s been that way in the U.S. for 25 years and some U.S. companies are coming here to recruit our graduate students. I’m not aware of them going to any other Canadian institutions.

[Helen]: Did the benchmarking process come up with anything constructive for the department, perhaps something you should be doing that you didn’t know about?

Not really, it was more a measure of how we compared to others. There were issues the external reviewers recognised that were useful to us. The amount of industry funding we receive is high – about equal to government funding - but traditional university benchmarks consider the level of funding from national granting councils and discount industry funding, partly because of the different review process – government grants come through a peer review process while our industry funding is driven by productivity and usefulness in an applied area. The reviewers were very positive about the level of industrial funding the department receives and encouraged the institution to be more recognisant of funds from the industrial sector as being equal to those from government in terms of benchmarking quality.

[Helen]: What do you think was your greatest achievement as head?

Surviving (laughter). It’s a five-year term and five years is enough. The balance between a research career and the administrative needs of the department is a handful. I survived in part because I was working in research groups with very good staff members and I was fortunate in having excellent graduate students. That’s how I survived as a researcher. I think the department strengthened during my five years and whether that was happenstance or had anything to do with me is hard to say. I was fortunate in having a top-notch administrative staff, and a supportive Dean. The department worked as a harmonious group of people, by and large, and I think that is a reflection of the leadership to some extent. When I finished my term the department was in good shape and that gave me a sense of accomplishment. A second component which I was very satisfied with was getting the Geoscience Professional Development Centre (GPDC) located in the department in the face of competition from other postsecondary institutions in Calgary. Our team did a lot of work putting in the initial proposal to the AAPG to have the facility located at the U of C then on getting similar levels of support from the SEG, CSEG, CSPG and APEGGA to get the facility established here in the department. I think it is an important step for us in the whole direction of post-degree continuous learning and we are increasing the number of courses being given. In my new job as Chair I see that being an important role. I felt it was a good achievement.

[Oliver]: This facility, what is its role exactly?

It is a hands-on facility with high-end dual-header PCs that enables us to put on courses integrating software with knowledge. It’s not just for software training but provides the capability of teaching courses with a practical lab component.

[Oliver]: And where do you draw students from?

Mostly downtown Calgary. We put on seven to eight courses per semester. Not all use the computing facility but many do. It fills a niche market left open by regular industry courses being taught downtown which don’t offer hands-on labs. The vision we had at the outset was to have three components – lecture, computer and hands-on core viewing. That’s an area we want to develop because it makes our courses different from others being taught in Calgary.

[Oliver]: I like the idea of hands-on.

And also using examples that are more meaningful for our basin. Many of the courses from international companies involve subsalt plays (Oliver gags theatrically) or the North Sea.

[Satinder]: Don, tell us something that nobody else knows about you.

(pause; laughter) I don’t like sheep quite as much as people think I do (more laughter).

[Satinder]: Don there was a news item a month ago about a twelve million dollar cutback at the U of C. How is that going to affect your department?

Well, we hope it won’t affect us. This is part of the restructuring process through which the institution is going. The institution is currently preparing its budget for this year and I am concerned that there may be some cuts that come our way, maybe not as severe as for other disciplines, but we don’t know yet. I think to some extent having high enrolments is good for us.

[Oliver]: I’ve noticed that while there are cutbacks at the U of C there is an incredible expansion at SAIT and Mount Royal. Do you think that there is a general perception among young people that a university degree is not worth it any more?

I don’t think so. I think it’s because there is such a general demand for post-secondary education. The enrolments at U of C have gone up too. There’s good interaction in our discipline between the institutions and the roles they play and we’re looking at more.

[Oliver]: Yes, I understand that SAIT has a geophysical technician course.

I think it is Geophysical Technology. The concept was to have people trained in such a way that in these large workstation clusters you’d have a geophysical technologist and a geophysicist working side by side. The technologist would become the expert at manipulating the software because the geophysicist might not use it often enough to remember all the bells and whistles.

[Satinder]: The number of students enrolling in Geophysics in the last 5 years - what is the trend in terms of boys and girls?

Pretty equal actually. We’ve seen a steady increase in the ratio of female to male students, certainly in the last 15 years. I don’t notice any imbalance any more – it used to be very male dominated. What’s interesting is that the majority of the high performing students in the last few years have been the female students.

[Oliver]: That’s no surprise. We’re nitwits, right?

[Helen]: Right. I was looking at the statistics for the numbers of graduates in the last few years and there seems to be a lot more in geology and environmental geology than in geophysics and I wondered if students are moving to the more environmental stuff?

I think there’s been a trend that way. There’s a new programme, Environmental Science, that takes students from chemistry, physics, biological sciences, geology and geophysics and mathematics and puts them through a pretty hard-core course. It’s probably a tougher programme than geology but there has been increasing interest since its inception five years ago. It spans many disciplines. It’s a move we’ve seen in the university - trying to break down the boundaries between the different departments.

[Satinder]: So what sorts of jobs might such students expect?

They work for environmental engineering or survey companies. The employment seems to be reasonable, particularly at the graduate level. It’s more on the geology side than geophysics.

[Helen]: So we haven’t lost students from geophysics?

No, in fact the geophysics enrolment at the undergraduate level has been steadily increasing since the historic low of 1993-94. All programmes – geophysics, geology, applied and environmental geology and environmental science have been increasing. In fact we’re maxed out on our quota for geology. In the last few years we’ve only been accepting about 1 in 2 or 1 in 3 applicants. We’ve had many more applicants than the numbers we can take and that’s rare across Canada.

[Satinder]: What are the restricting factors – lack of infrastructure or resources?

Infrastructure, resources and number of teaching faculty. There are several factors limiting how we can teach effectively. In geology field schools we used to take 100 students to Nelson and in geophysics we had 60 students under one instructor. In the department we are committed to field-based instruction in all disciplines so we now have 16 as the maximum one faculty member can handle, in order to make it a meaningful educational experience. The number of field schools we can put on limits the numbers of students we can take.

[Satinder]: How about at the M.Sc. and Ph.D. levels?

We are close to the maximum for geophysics but could probably take a few more in geology. We have a lot of applicants and it’s up to faculty members who want to be supervisors to take on whatever number of students they can either afford or for which they have appropriate projects. The limiting factor for new graduate students is primarily funding. It’s not well understood by the larger geoscience community that government support for institutions is mainly at the undergraduate level. There are limited government funds for supporting graduate students as teaching assistants (TAs). For example, this department has approximately 120 graduate students at any one time and we only have funds for 27 TAs. The remainder are supported directly by research funds acquired by their supervisors. Geophysics, and to some extent applied geology, have been able to do that through the research consortia such as CREWES, FRP and the Applied Stratigraphy Group. A lot of the funds that come into these consortia go to support graduate students. An M.Sc. student needs about $50,000 and a Ph.D. $100,000 over the course of the programme to cover subsistence and research costs. These are funds we have to raise as supervisors.

[Satinder]: How does the U of C compare with universities such as Stanford, Houston, etc, in geophysics?

We think we are as good as any of them. We are evaluated by people from sponsoring companies and other institutions and they say we rank in the top four to five in applied geophysics in the world. Other schools are stronger in theoretical or whole earth geophysics but in applied geophysics related to the resource industry we are in the top handful internationally.

[Satinder]: Fees are comparatively higher in the US than in Canada.

Much higher in the US but they tend to have more scholarships. We’ve had great support from the CSEG but across the entire student spectrum we’re quite low on scholarships. So fees are higher in the US but the support to meet those needs is there, too.

[Satinder]: In all the universities I have seen there are always some politics. As head, how did you handle that or is it non-existent here?

It’s not a big issue in this department. We have been lucky in not having disparate groups that won’t talk to each other. It’s small enough, with around 30 faculty members, that we’ve been able to see the common good and the way I approached being department head was to spend a lot of time talking to people about the issues and getting input from them before things became divided. I think we are a group of people who work well together. Being field oriented, in both instruction and research, helps because people work together outside the university on field schools where there’s much more good interaction.

[Satinder]: For our members, could you elaborate on your vision as the new Chair in Exploration Geophysics?

I divide it into three areas: interaction with industry, interaction within the institution and interaction with other external organisations. The role of the Chair has evolved over the years since its inception in the early 1980s. It was initially set up to create a link with industry and it has been incredibly successful, especially with Rob (Stewart) and Larry (Lines) as the past two Chairs. The roles of the Chair are interacting with industry to promote integrated collaborative research, maintaining our profile as a centre of excellence in applied geophysics research and training, being active in recruiting good graduate students and working on the post-degree continuous learning process. One thing I would like to encourage is getting middle-sized companies interacting with us. The consortia are supported mainly by the larger companies and cover a range of activities, many of which are outside the need of these smaller companies. I want to address this and have more projects targeted towards these smaller companies. An example is coal bed methane.

The Chair also has a role within the institution of promoting our discipline. There are immense opportunities now to get large amounts of federal and provincial support that we can use to match industry money. I need to be active within the institution promoting the areas we think are important for research in the geosciences and that the government would be willing to support. Another concern is the whole topic of the national image of geosciences, which I think is lower that it ought to be in a country which has a significant portion of its GDP coming from natural resources. There’s a strong move within the Canadian Geoscience Council (CGC) to integrate the needs of geoscientists across Canada and have a stronger political voice and a stronger presence in Ottawa with the Minister of Natural Resources. There is a strong need to improve awareness of the importance of geoscience so there’s an important national aspect to what I want to do as Chair. The CSEG has been a supporter of the CGC. Many other members are asking what benefit they derive from the CGC and now the CGC wants to answer that question.

[Satinder]: Don, what are your other interests apart from geophysics?

I like to play tennis as much as I can. My partner (Viola) and I like getting out into the mountains but we don’t get there as much as we’d like. We both have pretty high workloads and there’s only limited time for other activities. Actually I’m renovating the house – it’s been 15 years now since I started the renovations. I grew up on a farm so I like doing practical things, like tinkering and fixing things up. On the farm if something needed to be fixed you did it yourself.

[Oliver]: When I was in New Zealand I thought them the most self-sufficient people. In what part of New Zealand was the farm?

I grew up in the North Island, near Rotorua in a little town called Te Puke, the centre of the kiwi fruit growing industry.

[Oliver]: Did you go to university there?

Yes, in Auckland. I did undergraduate honours in Geology and Geophysics for my Ph.D.

[Oliver]: Then what brought you to Canada?

A job, plus I had personal friends in Canada – one in particular! I had also always wanted to come to Canada when I was growing up so I came and I’m still here 23 years later.

[Helen]: It happens to all of us. Have you ever been back to the old country?

You mean the old old country. My grandparents were from Cheshire and we visited there a few years ago. We went to this little village, Lawton Green, and happened to meet members of the local historic society in a pub. I had to first prove that I was a true blood Lawton and I was able to describe enough of the family history that they believed me.

[Oliver]: Oh, I thought maybe you were going to say you had some sort of congenital birth defect.

(Don’s reply has been censored).

They took us on a tour of what is now this government property called the Lawton Estate, which used to be this great big mansion and grounds my forebears had once owned.

[Oliver]: If they were landowners like that why did they move to New Zealand?

Well, there seems to be some sort of black sheep issue…(laughter). One of the offspring was sent away as far as possible. They said I could be a rightful heir to this big estate provided I paid the last 250 years’ worth of outstanding taxes.

[Satinder]: Let’s come back to coalbed methane now. We know that in the US 7% of the total gas production comes from coalbed methane and they have been pushing that for the last 30 years or more. What has been holding us back from pursuing this?

Other forms of gas have been available in Alberta and I think it’s still a bit uncertain as to how successful coalbed methane production will be from plains coals. It’s only really in the last couple of years that companies have started looking at coal bed methane in the plains rather than the foothills. The grade of coal and the level of cleating in the coals have not yet been established. You need good permeability and there is no permeability in the coals themselves so you rely on the fractures or cleats to be able to migrate gas in the seams. It’s exciting – the reserves are possibly very large.

[Oliver]: You were saying earlier that water will be an issue. I read somewhere that in Montana geoscientists are saying they expect that coalbed methane would be economical in their state but the by-product of water would be a big issue – they would have to dump it into the rivers and that would cause an environmental problem.

In some areas the water is good enough to be used for irrigation. We don’t know what the quality of water will be like in Alberta but it is definitely an issue that will have to be dealt with if coalbed methane expands in the province. You have to dewater the coals and thereby produce a lot of water. Could that water be used for waterfloods in other fields or is it good enough to be used for irrigation? We need to be looking outside the box in terms of integrating resource development.

[Satinder]: So the prospective areas for coalbed methane are BC,Alberta and parts of south-western Saskatchewan?

It’s wherever the main coal subcrops. It has to be within a few hundred metres of the surface to be economic to produce.

[Satinder]: Suppose a particular area is prospective for methane. Are we equipped to produce it?

I believe so - we just need the infrastructure. The gas seems to be producible. It’s a very sweet gas with almost zero H2S. It comes out of solution and you extract that then inject something - nitrogen, CO2 - as a flood to drive out methane from the surface of all these coal cleats. CO2 is particularly good because it preferentially replaces methane on the face of the coals.

[Satinder]: The oil companies that are engaged in coalbed methane exploration have to talk about this issue with the coal industry. Does the methane belong to the coal industry or the oil industry?

The subsurface rights issue has to be resolved. There is pressure to get it resolved because there is a significant level of interest.

[Satinder]: CO2 sequestration – how does it show up as a difference in the seismic signature? Do you expect a change in amplitude?

We expect changes in reflectivity and travel time because of a change in velocities through the dewatering process. It won’t be uniform through the coal zones though. Gas will first be produced where the most effective dewatering is and methane will be channelled during CO2 sequestration. We are confident that we can map changes in the reservoir level through changes in the water content rather than by the presence of gas. If the coal seam is changed from being methane-saturated to CO2-saturated, will there be a measurable seismic response? Labs in the US have measured different acoustic properties in methane- and CO2-saturated coals and it is theoretically possible. We are currently doing a pilot project to see whether CO2 is observable in the field. Part of the monitoring process will be to determine whether the coal is flooded with CO2 or if there is a breakthrough into overlying strata. It makes a great difference to the economics and causes environmental issues.

[Oliver]: What about the shear wave response to dewatering. Has there been any work done on that?

There’s been no lab work done. We anticipate that Vp/Vs might be a useful diagnostic tool. The VSP that we are shooting will be multi-component so we can assess the usefulness of converted waves in this environment.

[Satinder]: Don, you mentioned last night (in his speech as incoming Chair) the different areas you would focus on as Chair are – velocity modelling, anisotropy, time-lapse analysis, coal bed methane, physical modelling, migration, and VSPs. I didn’t catch exactly what the objective was for the VSP studies.

We’re looking at offset VSPs for determining anisotropy parameters. Most VSPs are only offset in one direction. It would be great to have multi-azimuthal changes to invert the first arrival traveltimes and get a better handle on the shallow velocities and the anisotropy parameters.

[Satinder]: You must be giving advice to youngsters all the time. What advice would you give to students entering the industry?

Stay broad and deep. Don’t become too narrow. We are seeing a lot of interest in people’s ability to integrate geophysics with geology and engineering. There is a really strong need to communicate between the disciplines.

[Satinder]: Now let’s talk about the University. What advice do you have for students?

Study hard. Do a degree program driven by interest rather than career. We’ve seen a change in our students since the early 1980s when we had a lot of students who were very career driven in terms of their expectations from the University. They couldn’t see the value of taking courses in igneous petrology, for example, because it wouldn’t help them find Mannville gas. These last few years, students have been embracing a greater breadth of geology and geophysics, out of interest rather than out of expectations of getting a job.

[Helen]: I think students are worried about what jobs they’ll get.

Yes they are worried but because there is not necessarily a job waiting, they are saying “I may as well learn as widely as I can” and that’s a great attitude. If they take that attitude into an interview they are more likely to be hired than someone who just studied what was needed to get a job. They also realise in the course of their life they are likely to change jobs or even change careers so they are being more widespread in their learning skills.

[Oliver]: Having been on the hiring side, I’d rather have someone with a broader background. Don, looking back on your career, how would you describe it?

It’s gone quickly. I remember coming to visit this department in the fall of 1979 and it seems like just yesterday. I’ve learnt a lot at the University. It has been, and still is, really enjoyable. I like the environment – there’s a fantastic group of people to work with and also - it’s not the case in many universities - there’s a great willingness to work as a team, which has made it more effective and more enjoyable.

[Helen]: Do you think that is because we have these consortia?

That catalyses it but we also have the interaction with downtown. We all enjoy having people in the same discipline outside the university to talk to and interact with. Those are the elements that have made it enjoyable and why I haven’t had a desire to leave and work directly in industry. I have all the interactions I need to satisfy the different things I want to do.

[Satinder]: Well Don, thank you very much for giving us your time and this opportunity to come and talk with you.


In 2000, Don was awarded the CSEG medal for his services to the teaching of exploration geophysics.


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