‘Keep an open mind’

An interview with Laurie Weston Bellman

Coordinated by: Satinder Chopra
Laurie Weston Bellman

Laurie Weston Bellman is an experienced geophysicist who started her career with Shell Canada in Calgary, doing seismic processing and interpretation in the central plains area of Alberta. Thereafter, she worked for LASMO plc in London, and then got back to Calgary and took a consulting contract with Nexen Canada Inc., where her main professional interest migrated to the Canadian oil sands.

After this stint, Laurie starting her own consulting company in 2007 called Oil Sands Imaging, which was later re-branded as Sound QI and sold to Canadian Discovery in 2012. At present Laurie is President of Sound QI Solutions Ltd., Calgary, offering quantitative interpretation software and services for integrated reservoir characterization.

Laurie was the 2017 CSEG Distinguished Lecturer, and is also the recipient of the 2017 CSEG Honorary Membership Award for her many technical contributions to geophysics.

Laurie was responsive to our request for an interview which led to an engaging conversation, wherein she shared some very interesting career highlights and perspectives on the technical and business side of the industry. Following are excerpts from the interview.

Laurie, let us begin by asking about your educational background and work experience.

Well, like responses from many other people that you’ve interviewed in your column Satinder, I didn’t grow up wanting to be a geophysicist. In fact, university was even a bit of an afterthought, so I had a number of years following high school graduation to get a taste of the real world and try out different vocations. I explored several interests such as psychology, economics, philosophy, accounting, banking, criminology, and computer science, even furniture sales, before settling on the one thing I was always fascinated by: outer space. When I finally realized my calling, I quit my job as a teller at the Royal Bank and went to the local community college (in Kamloops B.C.) intending to learn more about it.

Only the first year of a physics/astronomy program was offered at this college – the remainder of the degree program continued at the University of Victoria. That’s how I ended up moving to Vancouver Island to study astrophysics. Fortuitously, UVic was one of the early adopters of the Co-Op Program, where work terms relevant to specific fields of study are alternated with school terms. Aside from the welcome paycheck, this opened my eyes to the wide range of jobs that were possible with physics/astronomy qualifications. I was thrilled when I got my first choice of job, after second year university, at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory just outside of Penticton B.C. My responsibility there was to write software for simple data manipulations of the information gathered from the array of giant radio telescopes right outside my window. Plus I was 22 and in a lake town for the summer – what could be better?

When the next work term came along, I perused the particle physics and astronomy options, but I couldn’t ignore the temptation of the money offered by the oil company jobs. I also couldn’t for the life of me figure out what oil companies needed with physics.

Three work terms followed at Shell, Dome Petroleum (remember them?) and Chevron. I have to thank Shell for taking a chance on me, and my first supervisor there, Richard Bottomley (where are you now Richard?), for patiently enlightening me in the mysteries and limitless potential of seismic data. I was ‘Hooke’d’. When I graduated with my B. Sc., I joined Shell Canada.

You worked at Shell and then moved to LASMO, Wascana and Nexen. What differences in work culture did you experience as you moved between these companies?

Shell introduced me to the world. I hadn’t seen much outside Western Canada, except for a spur-of-the-moment hitch-hiking trip to Texas before university and a four-month back-packing trip to Europe between university and Shell. The Shell world was so vast and interesting – I even had an exotic Dutch boss for heaven’s sake! (Strange coincidence: my boss at the radio observatory had been a retired Dutch Shell computer engineer). I couldn’t wait to experience the exciting and glamorous international lifestyle I anticipated was most certainly in store for me.

Reality turned out to be a little different and I spent five years in Calgary in the seismic processing group and the Central Plains exploration group. I learned a lot and I still consider my processing experience to be some of the most valuable in my whole career. However, having expected adventure, I was impatient for it, so I went looking myself.

That’s when an advertisement for a position with LASMO (London and Scottish Marine Oil) in London popped up. It was just what I was waiting for, so two months later, I stepped out of a black cab in Liverpool Street for the first day of a four-year adventure. LASMO was everything I had hoped it would be. First of all, I went to work every day in the center of one of the most famous and interesting cities on the planet. Even better though, I worked in the Europe, Africa, Middle East group, so I had exposure to that whole array of strange and wonderful geology, culture, petroleum history, political and business intrigue. I had meetings in exotic places with exotic people, experiencing memorable interactions and satisfyingly interesting adventures.

While working for LASMO, events beyond my control (a hostile takeover attempt) distracted everyone, and I took an opportunity to join Wascana Energy in their small London office. In the 10-person office, I was the only geophysicist, with responsibility for the main operated property in Algeria and several non-operated properties in the North Sea, Tunisia and Europe. Oil exploration can be thrilling and terrifying, and I was on the front lines of that environment in my new job. It was an exponential learning curve.

Very soon after, Wascana made the decision to close the London office and I was on my way back to Canada. Within a year of returning to Canada, my family was growing, I took a break, and later decided to return to work on a part-time consulting basis.

When and how did you decide to venture out on your own?

I had been happily consulting for Nexen in their original oil sands group, back in 2001, when a question came up regarding dipole sonic logs. What are they good for? I wasn’t sure how to answer that, so I looked around for some information. In addition to various conversations with forward-thinking people, I came across Bill Goodway’s 1997 paper on LMR. This application of seismic attributes intrigued me, inspiring me to talk to my petrophysicist and together, we started calculating and crossplotting elastic properties using the dipoles. Fortunately, these wells were also cored, so we got the geologist involved and were able to relate some specific geological features to elastic properties, even questioning and refining some of the core facies interpretation, based on variations and distinctions in elastic property attributes.

I had already been doing AVO and inversion myself for many years, using well-known commercial software. However, given network and hardware limitations of the day, there were times when I was watching a progress-bar while my mind wandered. It was during one of those periods of ‘reflection’, that the thought occurred to me to start a company based on the integration of the dipole sonic analysis and the seismic elastic property derivation. What I didn’t know was that other people were also thinking this way in various parts of the world and a new discipline, eventually called QI, was emerging, When I presented my oil sands work at a public luncheon, the positive feedback gave me encouragement that a) I was on the right track technically, and b) that there were opportunities to provide this service to several interested companies. Shortly after, in August 2007, Oil Sands Imaging was born.

How did you eventually end up going to Canadian Discovery?

By the time Canadian Discovery came along, we had changed our name from Oil Sands Imaging to Sound QI because we realized that our services were useful everywhere, not just oil sands.

After almost five successful years, however, we had a period of slow sales (but no proportionate reduction in expenses). Inexperience in business (and excessive optimism) meant we weren’t prepared for anything but growth. We could have carried on by making some drastic decisions, but luckily, Canadian Discovery showed an interest just at the right time giving us an attractive option. It was attractive (in addition to timely) because of the opportunity to leverage Canadian Discovery’s broad range of expertise, deep client base and established business structure and security. This move gave us a platform from which to expand our knowledge and services, as well as being instrumental in commercializing the QI software we had developed at Oil Sands Imaging/Sound QI.

Laurie Weston Bellman

What would you say are the challenges of becoming an entrepreneur?

There are many! I was a skydiver at one point in my life and being an entrepreneur is very similar. You make the leap into the blue sky and the feeling of freedom is exhilarating! …until you look down and immediately realize that hard reality (of the ground/bank account) is approaching very fast.

It’s so much more than having a good idea – the world of business is complex and uncertain, and the life of an entrepreneur encompasses the full range of exciting, boring, important, trivial, life-changing, life-disrupting, life-consuming; all this with no guarantee of success. It’s not for people who like routine, security, or predictable structure. For me though, it’s rewarding in many ways.

If I were to ask you to list three qualities that best reflect your personality, what would they be?

Curiosity, persistence, willingness to take a risk.

What do you have to say about how your career has shaped up so far?

Considering I never had a plan for my career or set any specific goals, I feel pretty satisfied with the way things have turned out (so far!). I have always tried to exceed expectations, whether I was an employee or a consultant, and that drive has worked for me and led me in a variety of interesting directions. At the same time, I took advantage of opportunities that presented themselves and had no fear of changing course if something looked tempting.

I have had to modify those impulses somewhat however, because running a business means you can’t change on a whim – accountability and stability do need to prevail. That doesn’t mean interesting opportunities don’t still come along. On the contrary, there are sometimes more opportunities than we can consider. However, one of the things I have learned with my own business (by trial and error) is that making and sticking to a plan, and evaluating opportunities in the context of that plan, is important! (…doesn’t mean the plan can’t change…)

What personal trait do you think helped you become a successful business woman, and stay in geophysics for as long as you have?

If I had to narrow it down to one trait, it would have to be my optimism. I don’t think you can take that leap into the unknown with a new business, or believe that real, valuable information can be coaxed from the uncertainty of seismic data without a strong sense that things will work out.

Looking back on your geophysical career, would you share with us one or two of your most exciting successes?

Even the prospect of success (not just success itself) can generate excitement. So regardless of success, I have felt excitement many times in my career. Starting something new, travelling to a new place, meeting new people; I am excited by the unknown. Of course, when something I have initiated or set in motion actually works out, that is the best. The ultimate exhilaration in our business, however, has to be discovering an oil or gas field with an exploration well, which, I am happy to say, I have been involved in a couple of times.

On the service side, you don’t have that direct opportunity to be involved in a discovery, but receiving validation of your ideas or software by someone who buys what you have to offer, or who wants to be part of what you’re doing, is just as exciting from my perspective. The first sale of my QI software, therefore, felt the same as striking oil!

Meeting and collaborating with people who want to share in the building of Sound QI, such as my partners and employees, our recent joint venture partners, Lumina Technologies, Absolute Imaging, and Beijing New Horizons, and friends and family who believe in the vision and are willing to take a risk – these are all incredibly exciting to me.

A feeling of accomplishment; satisfaction with being responsible for something bigger than myself, knowing I have influenced others, being a role model for young scientists (and my own children), and creating something that will ultimately benefit others for years to come, all count as exciting in my book too, so I continue to work toward those achievements.

You have been a champion for two main things, carrying out quantitative interpretation and use of multicomponent seismic data. That prompts me to ask you two questions. First, what do you think was the reason for the transition from the term ‘reservoir geophysics’ practiced in the 1990s to ‘integrated reservoir characterization’ in the 2000s, and then in the last 5 years or so the buzz word has become QI?

I think all those terms mean much the same thing. In 2001, when I first started investigating the use of seismic data with a quantitative approach, the papers I read referred to these methods in various ways: Hilterman called it ‘lithology colour-coded seismic’, Goodway called it ‘LMR’ (which is how I referred to the process in the early years), some called it ‘seismic petrophysics’ or ‘petrophysical imaging’ and others referred to ‘seismic reservoir characterization’, or just ‘reservoir characterization’, which geologists found confusing because they already did that with logs and core alone (no seismic). The first time I heard the term ‘QI’ was from the then Chief Geophysicist at Shell Canada, who told me that was how they referred to this type of thing in the Shell research world. I liked it because QI described what the process was, but didn’t make it seismic-centric. I waited a respectable length of time before I adopted the term and then used it in the name of my company!

QI, therefore is a very broad term that I believe is an integrated data decision-making process applicable anywhere, not just seismic data and not just the oil industry.

Incidentally, I have noticed the same confusion of similar labelling in the ‘Big Data’ discussion arena these days.

Second, multicomponent seismic has been around for quite some time and the industry has not embraced it like it adopted 3D seismic in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Do you think the benefits of multi-component seismic data are commensurate with the investment that the oil companies make? If yes, then what is the deterrent?

For a high-tech industry, we are, in general, notoriously conservative about adopting new technology. Multicomponent data can be bewildering, but I find the prevailing attitude to multicomponent data even more bewildering. There has been so much good work done to improve acquisition, processing and interpretation of multicomponent data, so I’m not sure why more people and companies don’t incorporate it. In every project I have done that incorporated PS data, the outcomes (accuracy and resolution of geological predictions) were improved.

One possible reason for reluctance to adopt the use of multicomponent data, could be that conventional horizon-picking and timestructure interpretation don’t do it justice. Therefore companies that take PS data at face (post-stack) value are wondering what the big deal is. In my experience, PS data only really improves outcomes when it is integrated into a QI workflow involving inversion and attribute derivation.

Multicomponent data refers to the recording of P-wave and converted S-wave data with 3-component geophones. Now, however, according to recent investigations by Hardage, Gaiser and others, it seems that S-wave data is lurking in all the P-wave data already acquired with vertical geophones. Even better, apparently it can be easily extracted from conventional pre-stack data using new mathematical models of P and SV radiation patterns in an irregular earth.

Isn’t it wonderful that just by looking at seismic data through a new lens, there is still so much more to reveal?

Laurie Weston Bellman

You had your company name as Oil Sands Imaging, and so I guess you must have spent quite some time working on such projects. What would you say are the clear differences between traditional characterization of such shallow zones and their quantitative interpretation using any innovative workflows that you may have developed?

Yes, the first name of my company (after the relatively boring ‘Bellman Consulting’), was Oil Sands Imaging. The name directly reflected the work I was doing at the time in the fledgling oil sands development environment. I don’t believe there was even any 3D seismic over the oil sands play at the time I started consulting. In the shallow oil sands environment, wells were cheap and seismic data was expensive, so it was challenging to prove that seismic data was even relevant.

Traditional characterization, which most companies have moved past by now, encompassed a number of ‘typical’ seismic interpretation techniques. Time structure mapping of the unconformity at the base of the oil sands reservoir was the most useful application of seismic, but what then? The McMurray reservoir is legendary in its complexity, and we had trouble even mapping the top on conventional seismic, let alone internal lithology variations. There was some success with an indirect differential compaction technique to indicate sand-rich areas, but there were many variables and uncertainties in the results.

I tried several approaches as an oil sands interpreter, such as seismic waveform characterization (identifying areas of common seismic signatures and calibrating them to a well or area of known geology), post-stack amplitude mapping (worked well in the top gas zones) and synthetic models to try to predict the seismic response for a multitude of geological variations. None of these post-stack methods consistently correlated with geological features. A geophysicist at one of the partner companies swore by post-stack inversion; another one thought a single attribute – instantaneous phase – was doing the trick to distinguish between sand and shale. No one really knew. In the meantime, operators weren’t waiting for us to figure it out – they were drilling 4, 8, 16, 20 or more wells per square mile!

It was the innocent question I got from the geologist planning the logging program back in 2001 that set me on the right path: 'Do you want dipole sonic logs?' I had to do some research to answer the question and that research led me (directly or indirectly) to everything I have accomplished since. Now, with pre-stack analysis (including multicomponent data), rock physics, well analysis and multi-attribute 3D and 4D interpretation, reliable predictions of lithology and fluids in the oil sands are achieved and routinely integrated into drilling and development programs.

What other areas of geophysics fascinate you?

I used to joke that the initials for my first company, Oil Sands Imaging (OSI), also stood for ‘Outer Space Imaging’. The oil business is so much more than geophysics. And data analysis is so much more than the oil business. It’s not necessarily other areas of geophysics that fascinate me, but the general data analysis subject. I see data as the new area of exploration and discovery – there’s a reason they call it “data mining”.

Douglas Hofstadter, in his iconic book on artificial intelligence, ‘Goedel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid’ used the word ‘isomorphism’ – assigning physical meaning to sets of numbers or symbols. This is exactly our objective in data analysis, however, there are so many ways to go wrong with the isomorphism part – false correlation, premature interpretation, misleading conclusions, sampling gaps, data biases, etc., etc. Data analysis can be a rich, productive mine, or a dangerous minefield of meaningless outcomes taken seriously. Yet there is so much power to harness.

You have been the CSEG Distinguished Lecturer recently. So, how was that experience, and what would you say to others for taking up such an assignment?

Looking back on it now, I can’t believe I did it! You did it too Satinder, with a similar intensity to my tour, so you can relate when I say it was exhausting and exhilarating in equal measure! I did my presentation 30 official times and many more unofficial times, with slight adaptations to different audiences. I must say, I got really good at that particular talk – and anticipating some of the questions the students and faculty might ask. The opportunity to visit universities and institutions all across Canada, plus a few stops in the US (Alaska and Texas) and Mexico, was an amazing experience – I would even go so far as to say it was life-changing. You can have a look at my Tour Summary in the October 2017 RECORDER for a more detailed account (with pictures) of my travels.

You have also started teaching courses now. Tell us about that experience, and how you decided to get into this.

It turns out I quite like teaching. I was asked a couple of years ago to put together a DoodleTrain course on the practical use and application of QI techniques. In fact, it was the same year I started the CSEG Distinguished Lecture tour, so it was a busy year for training and presentations. Initially, I was unsure about both the material and delivery – two days of talking is significantly more daunting than a 20-minute conference presentation. But once I got started, I realized there was a lot of information to convey and, since I love talking QI, the delivery came fairly naturally. We also offer a couple of practical QI courses through Sound QI.

Apart from the science that you practice, what other interests do you have?

Running and growing a business: this can be an all-encompassing endeavor. It’s hard to do anything else except taxes and grocery shopping (and vaguely remember where you parked). So, aside from staying connected with my three daughters, who are all pretty independent (can’t imagine where they get that from), I don’t have time for too many outside interests. However, I have recently taken up hula-hooping...

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

Our profession is constantly changing – be prepared for that. I know it’s hard to be prepared for something we can’t even imagine right now, like the kind of change that people of a certain age (my generation) have been through, but that’s one of the things that makes this career so exciting and continually engaging in my opinion. I’m not going to advise anyone to do a specific thing, like take a statistics course (although that would be extremely valuable) or learn the logic behind computer programming (which would be pretty useful too) or try to get some seismic processing exposure (which I consider essential). Rather, my simple message would be to keep an open mind.


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