“When you look down a rocky path what do you see: stepping-stones or stumbling blocks; it is the point of view that counts.”

An interview with John Fernando

Coordinated by: Satinder Chopra
John Fernando

John Fernando is the current director of educational services in the CSEG executive. He is also a full time instructor at SAIT in the Exploration Information Technology program and was awarded the Instructor Excellence award in the ICT department for 2009-2010 by the SAIT students’ association. John has also been an instructor for the DoodleTrain over the past four years.

His early career was in seismic data processing with Geophysical Service Inc. (GSI), Halliburton Geophysical Services (HGS), Western Atlas International (WAI) and Kelman Technologies Inc. (KTI) over a span of sixteen years. John has been an instructor first as a part-time instructor in the Continuing Education program of the Energy department for four years and as a full-time instructor in the Exploration Information Technology (EXPT) program of ICT over a span of ten years. He hopes to expand his teaching skills to locales beyond SAIT. Following are excerpts from the interview with John.

(Photos courtesy: Ann Mooney)

John, tell us about your early education and your work experience.

I arrived in Canada from Sri Lanka with my parents and my sister on January 2nd 1972, in the dead of winter. What a climate shock that was! When my dad, who came to Canada a year and a half before, wrote to my mom that it is unbelievably cold in Canada, we thought that a sweater or two could handle the situation. To someone who has lived in a tropical country, it is impossible to comprehend how cold it can get.

I had completed grade IX at St. Mary’s Boy’s College in Negombo, in South Western Sri Lanka. My schooling in Sri Lanka was very rigorous and caning even for minor offenses was very common. Our school principal was a priest and fortunately or unfortunately for us a strict disciplinarian. He put the fear of God into us when he walked the hallways, never hesitating to let his four foot bamboo cane do the talking.

Our school year would run from January to December and so when I arrived in Calgary the first semester of the school year had already finished. My dad got approval from the Edmonton Board of Education for me to enter grade X at St. Francis Senior High school without having to repeat a grade as some of our Sri Lankan friends’ children had to. English is my second language since Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, is a commonwealth country. However, my knowledge of English was very rudimentary which meant that my mother being an English teacher had to spend long hours teaching me and my sister English so that we could catch up to the high school level. That was a trying time. Missing the first semester also meant having to finish high school in two and a half years which I did with 10 more than the required 100 credits.

The best part of my high school days at St. Francis Senior High was the selfstudy math program which meant that I was able to start on Math 20 having completed Math 10 in half a semester. Having completed a much higher standard of Math in Sri Lanka, I found the high school Math to be very easy and my dad being a math teacher made it that much more enjoyable. When it came to teaching math, my dad was a gifted teacher.

At the age of sixteen I enrolled in the University of Calgary in the Faculty of Science and completed my first bachelor’s degree in Cellular and Microbial Biology. I have a passion for the study of microbes and still continue to follow developments in the world of medical science. I had a summer job at the medical school in the department of Ophthalmology where I was part of a research team that experimented on mice. Having to inject pregnant female mice on a daily basis (never mind being careful not to get bitten by them) and later having to dissect the retinas of their newborns (all in the hope of finding a correlation between drugs used for epilepsy and retinal separation in humans), didn’t seem like something I wanted to do as a life-long career.

During that time I had heard that there were plenty of jobs in the field of geology, and the fact that Sri Lanka is well known for rubies and sapphires, besides producing the best tea in the world, made me plan on being a gemologist or at least marrying a rich gem merchant’s daughter if all else failed. So I enrolled in the department of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Calgary in order to pursue a post-degree B.Sc. in Geology.

So you graduated from U of C with a degree in Geology. How come you crossed over to Geophysics?

My expectations of many opportunities in geology at the time of my graduation didn’t quite come to fruition and plan B to become a gemologist also seemed a bit of a far off possibility without attending an institute for gemologists.

However, a company named GSI had a job posting at the U of C campus for which I applied and got an interview with Keith Matthews – Processing Manager at GSI in Calgary. I liked the company very much, especially because of its offices worldwide which meant possible overseas travel. I really wanted to join GSI and after the interview, I asked two of my referees to send letters of recommendation to Keith on my behalf. I was very happy when I found out that I had a job offer from GSI, a week later.

After I had joined GSI, Keith told me that his short list was down to two choices for the full-time position and the two reference letters he received on my behalf sealed the deal for me because as he said, “I could read between the lines that you wanted the job very much.” This is something I mention to my students in my efforts to encourage them to go beyond what is expected of them in their day to day work. In retrospect, I am very happy that I joined GSI because it gave me a chance to gain a lot of knowledge in Geophysics, attend GSI’s Area Geophysicist University (AGU) in Dallas, Texas for a full year of Geophysics training, and also work in Brunei Darussalam for almost five years at the HGS dedicated processing center for Brunei Shell Petroleum.

Your first job in 1981 got you into seismic data processing. How was that experience to begin with?

It was the best time of my entire career; I was young, not married, eager to learn, and the company provided all kinds of opportunities to learn Geophysics. We also had half a dozen GSIers who had come to Calgary from Houston (Mike and Karen Plumlee, Terry Hart, Ken Craft and Teresa Reed to name a few), to train us in GSI’s processing software called TIPEX.

My work experience in the Oil and Gas industry started with my job at GSI in 1981 in the marine processing department. I found the work very easy and enjoyable. The processing software that we had was user-friendly, at least the data inputting aspects of it. The code for our software was in Fortran. The best part of it was trying to decipher error messages. There was an error message book that we checked first before going to ask for help from the software support group.

I worked long hours because I enjoyed the work very much. Going home at the end of the day was not something I looked forward to because there was so much work to be done, and more work completed meant more billing at the end of the month for our group.

I joined GSI in May 1981 and after working for less than a year got a promotion as an assistant group leader within the marine processing group of about twelve members. Each processing group had a party chief who for my group was Sam Nader, a group leader (Teresa Reed) and one or two assistant group leaders depending on the size of the group. That promotion motivated me even more and I was also getting a lot of recognition for my efforts and dedication by being assigned more and more work which was great.

The following year I was called to the office of Lorne Morris – Center Manager for the Calgary office and I was given the incentive award I had received from Dolan McDaniel – president of GSI’s worldwide operations, for my efforts in completing a project on-time – one which had a penalty clause. Needless to say, my enthusiasm “caught fire”.

As I continued my work tirelessly, I came to know of the AGU that GSI held in Dallas, Texas, annually, and dreamed of participating in the training program but I never pinned my hope on it because I did not want to be disappointed should I not get a chance to attend. However, to my shock and awe, Keith Matthews called me to his office one day and informed me that I had been selected to attend the AGU in 1984. He also told me that during the selection process, my name had been at the top of each category that they had evaluated in choosing whom to send to the AGU. GSI spent a “cool million” to train ten of us from its various offices around the world and David Monk was one of the ten. Other class participants came from our offices in Saudi Arabia, Argentina, Australia, UK, and the U.S.

I was so happy and knew that all the countless hours of overtime I had put in without claiming any pay for it had paid off with GSI now going out of its way to reciprocate the good deeds I had done. For me this was the defining moment of my career because it gave me the chance to spread my wings in the area of geophysics. I was fortunate to meet and learn from experts in the field of geophysics such as Malcolm Lansley, Alistair Brown, Cam Wason and especially, Peter Embree who also was my class instructor.

I was also very much involved in the social activities that were organized within the company. We had baseball games, football games, racquet ball tournaments, curling bonspiels, etc. – the types of social activities that are commonplace in all the companies throughout the industry. However, the best part of all these activities was the camaraderie that it built between co-workers.

You spent the next 14 years doing land and seismic data processing. That must have given you enough processing experience to independently handle seismic data and also to manage other processors in your company.

I was very fortunate to start my career in the marine department because I find marine data processing easier than land data processing. I spent about two years in a marine processing group, was then moved to the project start-up group, and after six months I was promoted as the group leader of the start-up group. I left for Dallas, Texas in February of 1984 and spent the next 10 months learning Geophysics and also worked in the Murray Laidley’s Advanced Technology group helping Isanth Deraniyagala (a fellow Sri Lankan) with a project he was doing in testing our velocity model building program called “SAPCEVELS”.

Upon my return to Calgary I was assigned to a land processing group and worked on 2D land data processing. During the next year I got the opportunity to work on GSI’s first land 3D processing project and continued to work on both 2D and 3D land projects.

In the summer of 1985, I went to Sri Lanka for my sister’s wedding and met an architect’s daughter, and a year later returned to Sri Lanka and got married and returned to Canada with her. Getting married changed my priorities in a big way; no longer did I care to work long hours or work on weekends. However I did both, because HGS had tough competition from other processing companies and our very survival called for extra effort from all of us in processing. I did take some work home but we didn’t have any laptops, and in those days – job submission had to be done at the office. I would get a call from the computer operator during the night sometimes, that some jobs needed resubmitting for one reason or another.

Over the next four and a half years my wife and I were blessed with two sons and a daughter, and when my younger son Nishan was three months old I took my family and headed to Brunei Darussalam to work in HGS’s dedicated processing center. In the center, which had a staff of four processing geophysicists, I was involved with processing marine 3D data. With a small processing group it gave me the opportunity to learn a lot about data processing because I was able to process the data from field tapes to outputting SEGYs. This completed my knowledge of processing the four different types of seismic data i.e. 2D, 3D land and marine. I also came to realize that my value to the company increased because I could be assigned to projects in any of the four areas if the need arose. I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to process 2D, 3D land and marine data because now I am able to teach all aspects of data processing to my students.

During my fourteen years as a seismic data processor I was always involved in training other junior processors and I found this improved my knowledge of day to day work, especially the geophysical aspects.

John and Satinder

Why did you start working part time in 1997 as an instructor at SAIT? Was there a sense of insecurity at your place of work or was it something else?

I could have worked in Brunei until May 1996 but decided to return to Calgary before that so that my three children could enter a school in Calgary. I was asked to wait until the end of our five year contract in May 1996, but decided to resign from my position with Western Atlas International and return to Calgary in October of 1995. On October 25, 1995, my last day at work in Brunei and WAI, there was a total-solar eclipse and while we were at lunch to mark my departure, the noon hour sun became darker and it felt like a fitting way to say goodbye to a great and rewarding career.

Upon returning to Calgary I had a house built and decided to return to data processing but found that there were not many opportunities at the time. Also the WAI office in Calgary was in a rebuilding mode after a brief absence from Calgary.

During my efforts to return to the industry, I received a call from a friend of mine who wanted to know if I would be interested in teaching for the Continuing Education program of the Energy department at SAIT. Without any hesitation I agreed. Even though I had no formal training in teaching, I wanted to give it a try because of my experience in the industry. I also was a bit hesitant to return to long hours and weekend work because I no longer enjoyed it.

Thereafter you took up this assignment on a full-time basis and you are continuing with it. So, is teaching a noble profession?

Teaching is considered a noble profession in my culture. However, I know that it can be a daunting task trying to mold students into professionals the companies in the industry would eagerly employ.

My first day of teaching in the evening geophysical certificate program was a bit nerve-racking, but I persisted in my efforts. I had no software at my disposal and not much in the way of seismic data or sections. The students were very patient with me and knew that I did my best given the circumstances. Each year I improved on what was done the previous year and soon found teaching very enjoyable. Needless to say there were always trying moments but they were far and few in between.

While I was teaching in the evening program I mentioned to a friend of mine that I wouldn’t mind getting back to processing at least on a parttime basis. The word reached the ears of a friend of mine who I had worked with at HGS, who approached Rick Steele at KTI, and Rick offered me a part-time job at KTI. So now I had two different jobs and that felt very good. However, it didn’t remain the same for too long, because Rick Steele offered me a full time job when someone left KTI. That was great. Soon after I was approached by the coordinator of a newly formed program called Exploration Information Technology at SAIT wanting to know if I would be interested in teaching a Geophysics course. I told him that I would have to get Rick’s okay to do so and that the class would have to be from 8 to 9 am on Monday to Friday. Rick agreed, and so now I had three jobs: in the morning I taught for the diploma program, during the day I worked at KTI, and then later in the evening I taught for the geophysical certificate program. During this time there was a transit strike and I parked my car at SAIT and walked to and from downtown everyday for about a month. It was pretty exhausting and I knew sooner or later something had to give.

Later in the spring of 2001, I was offered a full-time job to teach at SAIT and I decided to leave KTI and accept the offer. As much as I loved to process data and would miss the great individuals at KTI, I wanted to have a bit of time off during the summer months when my children would have their school holidays, and I knew that would be the case with a full-time job at SAIT. So this was my second goodbye to the industry but I knew I would not be too far from it since I would need to keep myself abreast of the developments in the industry in order to do a good job in teaching geophysics.

To be honest, in my opinion teaching is the noblest profession. It is the one profession that can light a fire in a person’s mind and soul and have the effects echo in eternity. Both my parents were teachers and I have many extended family members who were teachers, so the traits of a teacher are in my blood, and even though I never planned to be a teacher, perhaps I was meant to be one sooner or later. Someone at this year’s SEG convention in Denver said, “To be good in something one must do the work first, then teach it, and complete the process by writing about it.”

Tell us about some of the challenges that you faced during teaching and how you worked on them?

I was raised in a schooling system where the teacher was like a God. What he or she said was law. There was no arguing or negotiating. If anyone decided to go to the principal against the teacher, the chances were that the principal came down harder on that person. At least this was the case in my school, which was a Roman Catholic boys school. Discipline was everything. My school principal was a priest who only feared God. The mere stare from him was enough to silence the class. When he needed to explain something to an incorrigible student he let his four foot bamboo cane do the talking. I think he believed that could cure all manner of discipline and attention deficit problems.

Given this background of mine it is very difficult for me to deal with the lack of discipline in classrooms. Mind you I am dealing with young adults for the most part, and most of them seem to lack the desire to learn or seize the opportunity that is given to them simply because they do not realize that in life some opportunities may not come around a second time.

First is attendance problems – late arrivals and absenteeism is one of the biggest challenges in teaching any class today. This is more so with young adults than with more mature students. They fool themselves by thinking they can simply catch up by getting someone’s notes. I repeatedly tell them that there is no substitute for being on time and paying attention to what is being taught. Sometimes it takes a bit of repeating before the advice gets through. I usually do the convincing by the way of difficult exams.

Second is the difficulties the students have in committing important information to memory. “Memorizing” seems like a nasty word. I was taught the art of rote recall at a very young age and I am still benefiting from that hard-line approach. I very seldom look at notes when teaching. I organize my thoughts before the class begins and teach by memory as much as possible. I also ask my students to write down important information because writing gives the brain a better chance at recalling information. Having to write notes has the added benefit of preventing students from surfing the net while I am lecturing.

Third is the fear of math. To most of the students math is like a pit bull that constantly chases them wherever they go. My dad taught me how not to fear math and how to make the pit bull my pet. So when my students struggle with very minor calculations such as the fold calculation I am flabbergasted. I try my best to show them how easy algebra is but they need to have a method to their approach. Some quickly catch on and others need more convincing.

Given these challenges I do my best first to gain my students’ trust and confidence in my abilities at the very start of the first semester. When they realize I know what I am talking about and that I am willing to go out of my way to help them no matter what time or day, they reciprocate with a better effort. After every exam I go over the answers in the class and explain the answers and then I meet with each student one on one privately and discuss the exam and what he or she needs to do in order to improve the grade. This is when I bring up issues such as attendance, surfing the web during class and bringing food and drink to the labs, which is not allowed. After a recent one on one meeting a young student said to me, “Okay, I will give a better effort for you man.” It was hard not to chuckle at the way he addressed me. In my culture it was always “sir or miss”, never by the first name, or anything hip. My students really appreciate the one on one conversation because they are able to confide their difficulties without being embarrassed in front of their peers. So my approach, even though it saps my energy, is to treat all my students with respect and help them to discover their full potential by the way of patience, reason and compassion.

I also do my best to involve my students in the various activities of the industry such as CSEG luncheons and the convention in May, and even more importantly I reach out to my friends such as you Satinder, Graham Carter, Andy Dyke, Dave Willett, Brian Russell, Bill Goodway and many others to visit my classes as guest lecturers in order to create a desire in my students to learn geophysics. When they hear from the professionals in the industry what is expected of them as technologists, my efforts to convince them becomes easier.

I have to admit that at the end of the day I enjoy teaching young students because they are easy-going and that tends to “lighten me up” in my approach to my work. Also it makes me feel young dealing with them and occasionally I will challenge one or two in the class to play squash with me. Before the game I let them know not to go easy on me hoping to get an “A” in geophysics and soon they realize I am no pushover. So far I have been able to hold my own and even win almost all of the games I have played with them.

Tell us about some highlights of your career?

I would like to mention three highlights from my career in the industry and my teaching at SAIT.

First was my being chosen to attend the GSI’s AGU in Dallas, Texas. This was my first instance of being away from my parents and that took a bit of getting used to simply because my parents, my sister and I were a very close knit family. For my parents it was equally a sad event my being away for nearly a year. However, attending the AGU gave me the opportunity to learn from the experts. It also made me realize all the opportunities that were available to those who are willing to put in the effort to follow their dreams. I loved the heat in Dallas but getting used to seeing cockroaches in the apartment was impossible. I was always on the look-out for them.

Second was my overseas assignment in Brunei Darussalam. When I told my wife that I had been picked to go to Brunei she was in tears. My wife prefers the hot weather to cold winters. Needless to say I was excited very much but my parents with whom my wife and I had lived after getting married were very much saddened. We left for Brunei in March of 1991 and my children were very young, with my younger son Nishan only three months old. He had no clue as to what was going on.

We arrived in Brunei and stayed at the Sea View hotel for about two weeks until we got our rental house assigned to us. I was very fortunate to get the best of the houses and it was the best because there were four coconut trees in the front yard of the house. So when my wife needed a coconut to use in her cooking I only had to go outside and pluck one from the tree, remove the husk and my wife would grate the coconut for cooking.

Unlike in Dallas where I had to put up with the sight of cockroaches there was a lot more serious situations in Brunei, that being snakes, and more specifically this was the home of the Burmese python. Being from Sri Lanka I have a dislike for the creepy crawlies, thanks to several close encounters, and so I like to keep my distance from them! My wife and I never let our children play outside without one of us being with them for fear of them stepping on a snake. Being Roman Catholic I had pictures and medals of St. Patrick in and around my house and for those of you who are not aware of the story, St. Patrick is the saint who is credited with the task of getting rid of snakes from Ireland. My microbiology professor at the medical school told the class about scientists taking fertile snake eggs from England to Ireland and failing to get the eggs to hatch while the eggs were in Ireland.

The best part of my stay in Brunei was the chance my children got to attend the Brunei Shell International School. All three of them, especially my older son Sunimal and my daughter Ruweka, benefited from the expert teachers and the small class sizes (about twelve).

On a personal side, my center manager Mick Dwyer asked me to pose for a photo in our computer room when the center was newly opened, which ended up in the Borneo Bulletin a few days later. Then I was asked to pose for another photo and this time the photo ended up in the Brunei Shell’s magazine called “SALAM”. I was told by one of my co-workers from Brunei, that the second photo was part of an exhibit in the Brunei museum about the history of Brunei. That was definitely my moment of fame.

Immediately after Ramadan we were able to visit the palace of the Sultan of Brunei and in 1991 he was the richest man in the world. His palace has close to eighteen hundred rooms and talk about opulence. Wow!

The third highlight was my recently being nominated by the class that graduated in May 2010 for the Instructor Excellence Award. I did not give much thought to my winning the award but wondered if I might have won the award when I was invited to the gala award ceremony held by the SAIT students’ association. To my surprise I did indeed win the award, which gave me an incredible feeling of accomplishment because it proved that my students indeed held me in high regard for all my extra efforts on their behalf. Receiving this important award has only motivated me to strive to do more for my students because now I have proof of how much they care for me as I have cared for them.

Did you get inspired by someone in your family, say your parents, to take up teaching as a profession?

During my university years I did not consider teaching as a profession that I would be interested in.

I was very much aware of my dad’s no-nonsense approach to teaching. He knew how to inspire students and show them how easy math can be. So when I was presented with the opportunity to teach at SAIT I didn’t hesitate to accept the challenge, knowing full well that if I did run into any trouble I could always call on my dad’s advice to help me through the learning period. In fact he used to help me grade the multiple choice exams and enjoyed the opportunity very much. I would always share my teaching experiences in the class and he would give me his advice on how to handle various situations so as to resolve the situation amicably. I knew his advice was borne of many years of experience so I listened and took his advice gladly.

Speaking of my dad, he achieved a great distinction by sending a group of seven young mathematicians from grade nine for the first time in his school’s history to write the Pascal math contest held by the University of Waterloo, and having the team place first in all of Canada. His achievement came at a high price, with him having to go with very little sleep and having to explain math problems to students over the phone until his “ears got numb”, as he said to a Calgary Herald reporter who wrote an article about his accomplishment.

My ambition for my students comes from such accomplishments of my dad because he always set higher and higher standards for himself and was never content with the ordinary. From him I learnt the desire to do ordinary things in an extraordinary way.

What qualities do you think are required for becoming a good teacher?

Patience, Patience, Patience. Several instructors that I know who have taught at SAIT have failed in their efforts to educate the young and the mature students not because of their lack of knowledge of their subjects, but because they lack patience. They expect all students in their sphere of influence to be intelligent, dedicated and enthusiastic. That is their first mistake.

From my own experiences and knowledge I know that most students have fairly similar abilities. However, they all differ in the amount of discipline they have towards their studies.

I understand that most students who get into a situation of difficulty do so because of their inability to motivate themselves to set goals and strive to reach those goals. In most cases, they lack support from their parents or friends or whoever they are close to, and if I am no better at providing support for their efforts I am very likely to lose them from my classes.

My approach to teaching has been to first and foremost teach the student to believe in his or her ability to do good work, and be able to excel in whatever they do. I do so by gradually introducing them into exam taking. First exams are usually worth only 1 or 2 percent. Then come exams that are worth 10 percent to be followed by the mid-term exams that are worth 25 percent and finally the dreaded final exams that are worth 40 percent. By the time my students reach the final exams they know my hard hitting style when it comes to exams and have come to accept it, realizing that my intentions are sincere and my expectations are not unreasonable. I do get complaints about my exams being hard but I always remind them that I give a review session and a summary of what is expected for the exam, and if a student has done poorly it is mostly because they have not asked for help at the opportune time. My favorite motto that I quote to my students is the Nike motto: “Just do it”.

Tell us about some of your other skills that you think helped you reach where you are today.

I have a knack for organizing events and making plans and seeing them through to completion. The more complex and intricate the planning and execution of an event, the greater the exhilaration I get from its successful completion.

For example, during the 2010 decennial convention I had my second year students taking part in the poster contest, and my first year students taking part as volunteers, as well as in the challenge bowl. I was not happy with the results because I would have liked to have seen them do better in the challenge bowl and the poster contest, but for my students being involved in the various activities at the convention was the best part of it. As for myself, I have learnt from my experiences and will strive to do better next time.

I used to think being calm and collected in my work life was the best way until I heard a saying by Mario Andretti (Formula 1 racing car champion), “If everything’s under control, you are going too slow.” Ever since then I have wanted to take on more challenges and keep pushing myself evermore. Most importantly I have to thank my parents who instilled in me a good work ethic and desire to excel in whatever I do.

I have also tried whenever possible to use role models whom I consider to be professionals at whatever they do, be it in their attire or in the manner in which they conduct themselves in public. So keeping with my belief in the importance of good professional skills I never wear jeans, only dress clothes and a tie to class except when going on a field trip, I try to never be late for classes and I never tell rude jokes in class. This is my way of showing my students my regard and respect for them and for the most part they learn from my “Talk the Talk and Walk the Walk” attitude.

Could you tell us about this program that you teach at SAIT?

The Exploration Information Technology (EXPT) program in the ICT department is a two-year geoscience diploma program. In geophysics my focus has been on software applications such as Landmark (OpenWorks, SeisWorks), Paradigm (SeisX) – for data loading, Hampson-Russell (STRATA) – for inversion as well as data loading, and VISTA and Omni 3D of GEDCO. The applications that are currently being introduced to the geophysics program include WinPics, Geomodeling and Roxar. PetroSys and IHS Accumap (PETRA) will be used for the geology and well logging courses I teach. For the geology courses Accumap and GeoScout are software applications that are used. The lone GIS course uses ArcGIS. Emphasis is given to teaching seismic and well log data loading as well as seismic data interpretation. The students are also taught soft skills such as technical writing, presentation and communication skills.

What types of jobs do your students get in the industry?

Most of our grads are employed as technologists in Oil and Gas companies as well as in service companies. Their work duties vary depending on the area they are assigned to within a company. In service companies such as WesternGeco, Hampson-Russell, Divestco they may be required to produce SEGYs or pick velocities as two of my students did one summer at WesternGeco. Others who have joined companies such as Encana, Husky, ConocoPhillips, Imperial Oil, and Exxon- Mobil, have done work with mapping packages and have assisted geologists with their routine work. One or two of our grads have gone on to more IT related work but that is not very common given the fact that our emphasis is on the geosciences. One student stands out in my mind as someone who has done very well for himself through dedication and perseverance – Borys Data who is now the business development executive for Asia-Pacific for Hampson-Russell and is based in Perth, Australia.

What different subjects are taught in this program?

The course list is comprised of geophysics (2D/3D Land and Marine data acquisition and processing, 3D design, current topics in geophysics with a project presentation, case studies in geophysics and interpretation), geology – (basics and case studies with a group project at the end of the third semester combined with the second communications course, and case studies in alternate energy), computer fundamentals (Oracle, UNIX, Linux), GIS, communications, drilling, calculus and statistics.

Where does this SAIT EXPT program stand in comparison with a similar degree from say the U of C?

Actually the EXPT program is a unique program in that it combines geosciences with IT and it is meant to be a stepping stone for our students to enter the oil and gas industry, and perhaps further their education at a university as a few of our students have done by getting their B.Sc.’s in geophysics and geology. Most companies are supportive of their employees furthering their education, either financially and/or by giving them time off to complete the required courses.

What one thing about your students drives you up the wall?

Using calculators for the smallest calculations. The moment I give a calculation such as the fold calculation, they go for the calculator. It looks like Captain Kirk flipping open his communicator to talk to the Enterprise. I know all my students can do simple algebraic calculations. Having used graphing calculators in high schools seems like the worst thing for them because now they are hooked on them. They feel helpless without their best friend, the calculator. It is said that one of the biggest health issues in the next century will be dementia and as the saying goes about the brain, “Use it or lose it.”

I try to set a good example by not using a calculator myself whenever possible, but it is something that has to be instilled in our young students at the junior and high school levels.

Could you tell us about yourself in five words?

Love to soar with Eagles.

However, if I were to describe my character in five words they would be: simplicity, enthusiasm, dedication, cooperation, and loyalty.

I strive to keep things simple in my life. I advocate the “kis” rule with only one “s” – Keep It Simple. I do not like sophistication for the sake of trying to impress others. The reason most of us enjoy the outdoors is because of its silence and beauty, which comes from its simplicity, and yet we know there is tremendous complexity in any given natural environment.

I am always enthusiastic about what I do because otherwise it will be boring and my boredom will spread to others and before too long there will be misery. I know enthusiasm is contagious and the easiest way to motivate others to do good things is to make them feel enthusiastic about what they need to do.

I like to think that I am dedicated to my profession be it in teaching or any volunteer work I do for the CSEG or any other organization. My parents were the most important educators of me in this regard. They didn’t get paid a lot for their work but yet their dedication was unwavering. My paternal grandfather was a person whom I admire the most for his unswerving dedication to his family. My maternal grandmother, who was a school principal, always advocated dedication to the teaching profession by doing one’s best for the students.

It is a common question that I am asked during a referee conversation regarding my students: is the person in question a “team player”. Of course, everyone would say and think they are. However, it is easy to say so but something very difficult to do. Many will be good at cooperating as long as things go their way. I know my cooperation, no matter in what circumstance, is vital to the success of any task I am involved in even if I am not the team leader. I give my full support to the team leader because if I am to succeed I know the team has to succeed first. During my performance reviews it was always highlighted that I was exceptionally cooperative in my day to day work and always considered the good of the company or institute before my own.

Loyalty is the one attribute I strive for as the most important aspect in my character. Loyalty is the cornerstone of a person’s character because it lets others put their trust in a person if they know him or her to be loyal. A parent’s loyalty is what nurtures a child to grow up and show the same to his or her children with confidence. Without it, a person would be an opportunist and I strive hard not to be that way. Loyalty to my family and to my profession are my greatest challenges and it is also what brings me the greatest reward at the end of the day.

What are you planning for the future; I mean what goals are you working towards?

I hope to teach at SAIT for the near future, because individuals such as Dr. Gordon Nixon (VP academic), and Mary Resch (ICT associate Dean) are a pleasure to work with because of their sense of fairness and constant support. I also enjoy teaching young students because they are not set in their ways. So I have a chance to contribute to the building of their characters.

However, I want to shift to teaching internationally once I feel I have done my part to promote the EXPT program at SAIT. It has been a long road in reaching where I am now in terms of building curriculum from square one, and once I feel that has been accomplished it will be time to move on and let some younger blood take over the task. I have been very fortunate in having many companies in the industry be more than willing to donate their software to the EXPT program. This has made my work very enjoyable and exciting because not only have I been able to teach my students, I have also been able to acquire a broader range of knowledge for myself.

I have to say Satinder, thanks to your encouragement I undertook the task of asking Dr. Nixon’s approval to attend the SEG convention this year in Denver, Colorado and the experience has opened my eyes to greater possibilities. To let this experience be just a trip south would not do it justice and my hope and expectation is to use this as a springboard to other possibilities. While there I also had the pleasure of meeting Davey Einarsson for whom I have a high regard, as well as some of the past managers from the GSI. Thank you Satinder for challenging my “status quo” attitude.

Thanks again to your prolific writing accomplishments, I would like to start along this avenue with the hope of gaining more knowledge in the areas of new developments in the field of geophysics. Meeting Sven Treitel and Enders Robinson at the SEG Associate Editors’ dinner and meeting with Oz Yilmaz were the sparks that I needed to set my ambition on fire, to reach greater heights in the field of Geophysics.

Are any of your children going to follow you and take up teaching as a career?

My older son has held tutorials before final exams at the University of Calgary for groups of fifty or more, and does private tutoring in his field of Mechanical Engineering. However, I think teaching is something that one has to fall in love with and that can happen when one least expects it. My daughter and my younger son have yet to show any affinities for teaching. All three have completed their ARCT in piano music and perhaps someday one of them may take up a career in teaching piano. Only time will tell.

You are on the CSEG Executive. Do you indulge in other volunteer activities also?

I am a volunteer on the DoodleTrain committee, and during the SEG convention in Denver I volunteered to be part of the continuing education committee of the SEG. I am very excited about this new volunteer position because I know the SEG is a great organization and it will benefit me in my work in the CSEG for sure. I am a member of the Knights of Columbus and I used to volunteer at my church activities but have since left that to my two sons who volunteer as ushers, and my older son and daughter have volunteered as Sunday school teachers for the young ones.

What other interests do you have?

In the area of science my greatest interest is in Astronomy and space exploration. I cannot get enough of it. I read about all the new discoveries with a sense of awe with one wish that soon there would be a way to travel faster than the speed of light i.e. at “warp speed”. Needless to say I am a Star Trek fan but you won’t see me in a Klingon costume, as I am not a hard core “trekkie.” However, occasionally I like to use an expression of Mr. Spock: “Live long and prosper,” without the classic hand gesture.

I have a love of all sports, and more specifically track and field, especially in sprinting, because my dad had won a lot of trophies during his younger days in track and field. His coach was none other than an Englishman named Duncan White, who won a silver medal in the 400 meter hurdles for Sri Lanka at the 1948 Olympics in England. I was not encouraged to pursue track and field because there were no good prospects for athletes in Sri Lanka. It would have been a dream come true to have been able to complete in the 1976 summer Olympics in Montreal. However, needless to say I have lost much of my love of sports because of many athletes getting caught for cheating by using steroids.

Given my affinity to be disciplined in my life’s affairs, I admire the discipline that comes in learning martial arts. Two of favorite movies are: “Kung Fu” with David Carradine and “Karate Kid” with “Pat” Morita. I have shown the parts of the Kung Fu movie regarding the flash back to the young “grasshopper”. Often I consider a few of my young protégés as “grasshoppers”. There will be that one or two special grasshoppers that will be equally free-spirited and call me “Master John”.

Finally, I have to say I have a great desire to educate myself in the area of theology. Einstein had stated that, “Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.” I believe in a greater meaning to life than simply living and dying, and to find that meaning of life for me would be the greatest achievement in life.

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

In order to enjoy a rewarding career in the field of geophysics, young geophysicists must develop a passion for the subject of geophysics. One of the movies that inspired me in my younger years was the movie “Dead Poets Society” with Robin Williams and Robert Leonard of “House”. A passion for geophysics does not happen overnight. It requires dedication, persistence and a desire to solve problems.

I often tell my students during my one on one meeting and in the classroom that getting straight A’s is a tremendous achievement. However, if a person does not have an equally admirable personality, the academic achievements are of not much use except perhaps in a research lab.

I met a young lady recently from the U of C completing her undergraduate studies who I felt epitomizes the qualities of dedication, excellence in her work and a contagious spirit of enthusiasm and a genuine smile, who I am sure will go far in her career.

My advice to the young geophysicist is to “accomplish ordinary tasks in an extraordinary way” and to do so “one must toil through the night while others sleep”. If one succeeds in doing so, one will leave a lasting impression of oneself in the lives of others he or she crosses paths with. One of my first cousin brothers wrote a phrase in my autograph book many years ago I have used it to motivate myself during time of adversity: “When you look down a rocky path, what do you see: stepping stones or stumbling blocks; it is the point of view that counts.”


Share This Interview