“As long as we love the challenge of processing our nature, we will find surprises to make us smile."

An interview with Charles Ursenbach

Coordinated by: Satinder Chopra
Charles Ursenbach

Chuck, I am sure our readers would like to get to know you better, so tell us about yourself, i.e. your educational background and your work experience?

My education and career have been a journey, whose various turns I did not foresee. I admire people with well-planned careers, but I also feel fortunate in how things have worked out. I started off knowing that I liked mathematics and physics but was under the impression that it was difficult to make a living in those areas. I wish I had a better idea back then of areas of applied physics, such as geophysics. I considered a career in medicine. Chemistry was one good preparation for that, and I discovered a combined Chemical Physics major which I thought would work for both my interests and my goals. That worked fine for a while until I enrolled in a pre-med microbiology course. I found the material so tedious and uninteresting that one day I decided to drop the course, end my medical school plans, and replace microbiology with a political science option which I ended up really enjoying. I carried on with my Chemical Physics program, deciding to pursue an academic career. So, I then obtained a Ph.D. in Theoretical Chemistry at UBC, graduating in 1992 in the midst of a recession. I did a couple of post doc stints at Oxford and U Penn, while applying for academic positions. Finally, I obtained a position at Marquette University in Milwaukee teaching physical chemistry and running a research group. I had arrived.

You get your graduation degree in chemistry, your doctorate in theoretical chemistry, do your postdoc and teaching in chemistry, then you move to Calgary, and switch over to geophysics. Two questions come to mind, why of all places you decided to come to Calgary, and then why get into geophysics?

By the time we moved to Milwaukee we were a family of four. There were a lot of sacrifices to get to that point, and we were happy to enter into that challenge. As time went on though, we felt we were not thriving as a family. My wife and I were both from Calgary and our children were growing up far from extended family. Eventually we decided to move back there, even though it would necessitate a change of career for me, as a career in physical chemistry in Calgary was not a realistic option at that point. At this juncture in my life I was very fortunate to have John Bancroft suggest getting into geophysics, as it would make use of many of the skills I had developed in physics, mathematics, and computing. He hired me to work in his research group at the University of Calgary, and later Rob Stewart extended an offer to work in CREWES. Thus began my career in exploration geophysics.

You worked as a researcher at CREWES for many years; why did you not get a regular job at an oil or a service company, though eventually you did?

When I first started at CREWES I was not thinking of a career in industry. I enjoyed the academic environment and found the work challenging and interesting. Over time though, as a result of interactions with industry researchers through the consortium, I began to see industry as a place where I could enjoy making a contribution. I became aware of an opportunity at what was then CGGVeritas. I felt good about that, jumped in, and have been happy with my decision ever since. It also took me to Sensor Geophysical and to Arcis (now TGS Canada), where I have been for several years now. I always appreciate my time at CREWES though. Consortia play a valuable role in exploration geophysics. Companies benefit from supporting them, even if it requires some creativity during downturns.

If I were to ask you to list three qualities that reflect Chuck’s personality, what would they be?

It might be better to ask other people that question about me! A few that come to mind: I like to be cautious and thorough about things. I also enjoy efforts that require creativity and thinking up new ideas. And while I’m certainly not a comedian, I think most things in life go better if we maintain a sense of humor.

What differences did you experience while carrying out research at the University, and then at the geophysical service companies where you worked?

I feel like the differences are more of degree than of kind. In a university consortium there is more flexibility to pursue speculative research ideas, whereas in industry there is a greater requirement for your work to show a near-term profit; but imagination and practicality are important in both arenas. Industry generally has access to greater resources such as data and computing power, but we still run into limits because we often don’t get the kind of data we want.

Your research interests are diverse ranging from AVO to multicomponent to migration of seismic data. Let me begin by asking you about each of these. Do you think research in AVO is a done deal, whatever had to be explored has already been done? If not, then what are some of new ideas that people have been working on?

The AVO and AVAZ story is far from over. There are many directions that have not yet made their way from academia to standard practice – multicomponent, anisotropy, Q, frequency dependence, post-critical, spherical wave, non-linear. As computing power and, more especially, data quality increase, we will see each of these enter the standard toolkit. While at CREWES I had a collaboration with Arnim Haase on spherical-wave AVO. (Actually, it started at a CREWES Sponsors Meeting one year when Dave Gray told us we should work together – he was right!) Arnim had already done a lot of work in this area, and I was able to contribute by developing an efficient spherical-wave calculation that would fit into an interactive applet. I also collaborated with Jon Downton on post-critical AVO. It’s clear from looking at plots that post-critical and spherical-wave AVO want to go together and could give us a great deal more information from long offsets.

Multicomponent seismology has been around for the last three decades, but still not a mainstream technology that is embraced on a regular basis, even though the cost of acquisition, processing and interpretation of multicomponent seismic data has come down significantly. What according to you are the main hindrances for its mainstream adoption?

Limited bandwidth and registration challenges mean that expertise is required to use converted waves in tandem with P-wave data. However, there is certainly no lack of theoretical methods or potential benefits. Multicomponent is a standard offering now, but not as widely used yet as compressional. We continue to improve it and our clients will let us know when it’s reached the point of being a must-have.

Coming to migration of seismic data, there is a phobia amongst geophysicists that it is a difficult subject. I myself would consider it that way, till I attended John Bancroft’s course on migration and then realized it is not so difficult. Why do you think it is not explained well enough that people find it interesting and explore it more?

The genius of John’s approach is that he neither shies away from mathematics nor eschews pictorial aids. You need math to get a correct idea, but pictures to get an intuitive idea. Two presentation extremes are either to use dense mathematical slides that only a specialist could appreciate, or else to include no math at all for fear of scaring people away. I can understand both points of view. But when someone wants a drink of water, you don’t choose between dumping a bucket on their head or making them go thirsty. Similarly, when someone wants to understand what you are doing in migration, I think it is best to put thought into what the really essential mathematics are, and how to guide an understanding of them. During my time at CREWES, Gary Margrave asked me to teach a PIMS summer school course on migration, and I had to struggle very hard to apply this philosophy. I don’t know whether I was successful or not, but I certainly gained a deeper understanding by at least trying.

Apart from these three, what other areas of geophysics fascinate you and why?

I would love to know why PS waves often show signal at zero offset. Is it because of some kind of inhomogeneity, anisotropy, or the presence of other PS modes, as various authors have suggested? If we knew, it might enhance our use of multicomponent data. I also think it’s interesting to consider how one could build up an understanding of geophysics over various scales starting at first principles: the quantum calculation of crystal and molecular properties, the statistical mechanical development of fluid and surface properties, the study of pore structure with microscopic rock images and digital rock physics, and so on up to continuum and rock physics investigations. Such a program isn’t practical in everyday exploration geophysics, but I think it’s worth considering how it could be done, and such a perspective could be useful at some point.

I know you have been working on the determination of stress from seismic data and were disappointed. What according to you are the challenges in such a determination, and how can they be overcome?

It was a mixture of some disappointment, but also a lot of fascination. It is a very interesting area that we continue to learn about. One challenge is entering into the world of reservoir engineers so that we really understand it. How do they approach a project? What measurements do they take? What approximations do they use? What decisions do they need to make and how do they make them? These broader questions can’t be answered by a study of stress theory alone. Another challenge is communicating effectively to engineers what we need from them. For instance, could they routinely provide a cross-dipole sonic log from at least one well in their field? That would greatly assist us in using seismic to obtain stress-related anisotropy for their modeling.

What are the directions in which the future R&D world-wide in our industry is going? I would like your impression on the important developments that people can expect in geophysics? It is an open-ended question of course, but still I would like to have your views on that.

It doesn’t take a crystal ball to see a lot of machine learning in our future. Of course, you’ve been doing that for many years now, but most of us have some catching up to do. What does require a crystal ball is knowing what our industry will look like after being transformed by machine learning. It might help to study how geophysics was performed before the advent of computers, and that might give us a notion of the change we are in for and remind us of the fundamentals that don’t change.

What are your aspirations for the future?

I hope to continue making a contribution and to take on new challenges with the skills I have developed and enjoy using. I’ve benefitted greatly from those who have mentored me in my career, and I hope I can pass some of my experience on to other geophysicists coming along.

When you look back at your professional life, what is one narration that comes to your mind? I request you to share it with us.

When I was a teenager I recall reading a newspaper article which said that if you pursue something you are interested in then you are more likely to be successful at it. As obvious as that seems now, it was a novel idea to me then and I have kept it in my mind over the years. Although it doesn’t always work as simply as that, in general I have tried to emphasize skills I enjoy using. The hard work needed for success comes more easily then.

Here is a philosophical question for you. A quote I have heard many times is that ‘Life begins at the end of your comfort zone’. What would be your take on it?

We all need a comfort zone in which we rejuvenate and refresh. But life is growth and requires struggle, so we need to leave our comfort zone to feel fully alive. If we are never in a comfort zone then our struggles may just wear us down instead of helping us grow. But if we never leave our comfort zone it becomes a dead zone.

Okay Chuck, let’s switch gears here, let’s ask you about your interests. What all do you do in your free time?

My wife and I enjoy watching movies, going out, and occasionally taking in a concert or play. As a family we have enjoyed hiking and spending time in Waterton Park with extended family. We enjoy traveling. I’ve always enjoyed playing music and dabble periodically at amateur composing. I learned piano as a child, then also learned to play organ, which is quite different than piano. I play organ at our church sometimes, since we don’t have a professional organist. I find practicing for that quite therapeutic; and I enjoy the creative process of arranging a piece of music.

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

As a transplant into geophysics I would say to focus on fundamental skills that are transferable. Exploration geophysics may be a great place for many years, but you may need to morph the kind of geophysics you do or may even want to switch into a different field. If you enjoy using physics, mathematics, and computers to solve problems, they can always serve you well.

What is the most important thing that you learnt, or which influenced you in your life?

There are three qualities I have learned are important to happiness: having faith in the future/gratitude for the past, being kind to others, and being willing to learn. Many religions and philosophies (and our own experience) agree that it’s hard to be happy if you are pessimistic, selfish, or arrogant. And as simple as these principles sound, they are the work of a lifetime. I often still struggle to detect the signal of happiness in life when it’s buried in the noise of discouragement, fault-finding, or hubris; but as long as we love the challenge of processing our nature, we will find surprises to make us smile.


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