What I learned as a geophysicist wannabe

An interview with Victoria French

Coordinated by: Satinder Chopra
Victoria French

Victoria French is interested in all aspects of geosciences and even delves into the dark side of engineering when the opportunity presents itself. She holds BSc and M.Sc. degrees from Baylor University and a Ph.D from the University of Oklahoma. Her favorite projects are integrated ones that incorporate geological, geophysical, and engineering inputs into models for reservoir characterization. Having held a number of technical and management roles in the last 17 years, she is currently Technical Director, Subsurface for TAQA NORTH. In this role, Victoria acts as technical advisor to TAQA NORTH’s management team. She gives credit for her success to the incredible mentors that have inspired her and shaped her future: Emily Stoudt, Susan Longacre, Greg Hinterlong, and Kim Moore.

When I was an undergraduate my favourite professor, Dr. Oliver T. Hayward, gave me what I thought was the most challenging field project of the entire class. I was to traipse across Texas collecting data on High Plains Gravels. This was not the first challenge he had given me for his class assignments: another gem had been to determine the herding behaviour of dinosaurs. To put this in context, this was before you could search online and find oodles of information on almost any topic.

Approaching the assignment of High Plains Gravels with a less-than-enthusiastic attitude, I set out to look at every knoll and plateau across the western plains of Texas, spending a fortune on gas and cursing Dr. Hayward every mile of the way. Slowly, inevitably, my attitude changed. I learned that there had been a complete inversion of topography – low areas had accumulated quartzite gravel and then resisted erosion.

I became a detective, solving a geological mystery. There is no source for the quartzite gravels for hundreds of miles, so where did they come from? How did the gravels travel so far? Why had they resisted erosion so well? It was a fascinating project from so many perspectives.

You may wonder what this has to do with being a geophysicist wannabe. The answer is that I learned the critical importance of looking for all the answers to a problem, wherever they might be, and the importance of not limiting myself by selective thinking. There are so many geological puzzles that can be better defined and answered through geophysical interpretation. Or more precisely, through the geological interpretation of geophysical data.

One of my favourite tools has been to use millisecond timeslices through merged 3D datasets to visualize basement fault reactivation and determine how it affects stratigraphy through geological time. For example, you might see how reactivated faults create carbonate margins that develop over time due to subtle highs. Perpendicular to the platform highs you may see where orthogonal fault systems have created avenues for bypass sediments shed off into the localized basins, potentially leading to a number of potential plays such as deepwater fan deposits. A case of a simple method providing profound insights.

Geophysics is such an integral part of the geological sciences, and you do not have to be a certified geophysicist to gain geological understanding by digging into geophysical data. The opportunities for solving geological problems and gaining geological insight are endless. Ask questions. Learn about data acquisition. Go to processing meetings. Read up on the new techniques. Pay attention to pitfalls. Every geologist should look at seismic data.


You make an important comment in your article: ‘There are so many geological puzzles that can be better defined and answered through geophysical interpretation’. Could you please elaborate on this?

The WCSB has a great deal of well data available; but not all areas, even if the WCSB have enough log data to improve your COS to a level where management supports drilling a well in a new play or a complicated established play trend.

Geological puzzles such as meandering channel plays, reefs, thrust belt complexity, regional fault trends, offshore bar systems, etc. cannot be mapped “precisely” using well log data alone.

Seismic data often enables a “geoscientist” (someone trained in geology, geophysics, or both disciplines) with the ability to verify their interpretation originally based on well data or some other form of control data through visualization of two and three dimensional images through time and space. It is also one of the most powerful visualization tools in accurately defining complexities within your targeted depositional environment.

For example, I’ve worked in several areas where a geological puzzle was preventing effective sweep in CO2 and waterflood performance. Seismic clearly showed a strong lineament/fracture network that was creating thief zones, preventing effective sweep of the reservoir. This was not apparent from log data. While great for “flush” primary recovery, secondary recovery was going to be marginal, based on the fracture network and economic factors around sweep efficiency.

Seismic is critical in decreasing your risk profile as well, and helping to define optimal drilling locations in complex depositional and structural systems. Besides, you want to test the locations that look the best first, prior to putting together and budgeting a drilling program.

You also give important tips towards the end of your article. One of them is ‘ask questions’, which I think is very important. I am reminded of Einstein who said, if you stop asking questions you stop learning. Could you please explain how it helps?

Often as “Geoscientists” we become biased by our interpretation habits and techniques (“tried and true”). A wealth of information is out there in the minds of colleagues and coworkers. When you reach out to your networks you will be surprised how much you can learn based on your collaborative experiences. There are many techniques, examples, and experiences that are not proprietary that your colleagues most often will be excited to share with you if you ask for their opinions and knowledge. Not to mention what is shared within periodicals, at conventions and monthly lunch and learns.

Another important tip you give is ‘read up on new techniques’, which is to be a successful geophysicist, it is important to be well-rounded, i.e. to have knowledge about all aspects of the work that you are dealing with. You allude to this in your article, i.e. acquisition, processing and interpretation. Do you think this is a reality in our industry? Please elaborate.

Just reading up on seismic attribute work provides a geoscientist ideas on powerful visualization tools that provide insight into the geological systems and structural history that can make or break a trap or play.

Having a basic understanding of all the geoscience disciplines is in my mind a very healthy and advantageous place to be; with the caveat that you ensure you have the buy-in of your most experienced technical experts when you go to drill a well and spend capital.

Training courses I have been on with multidisciplinary integrated teams (GG/RE/D&C) have always been the most educational. Seeing modern and ancient environments from outcrops and active modern shorelines is a powerful visual method of understanding reservoir complexities across the geosciences and across disciplines to understand reservoir flow behaviour. Teams go away with a much better understanding of how each discipline compliments and depends upon the other to drive a successful drilling program.

To be a successful geophysicist, it is important to be well-rounded, i.e. to have knowledge about all aspects of the work that you are dealing with. You allude to this in your article, i.e. acquisition, processing and interpretation. Do you think this is a reality in our industry? Please elaborate.

As mentioned above, I do now see both our geophysicists and geologist branching out and doing more cross training, both within their disciplines and across them. There are many geologists who attend the geophysical luncheons and visa versa with geophysicists attending geological luncheons, etc. The local societies are probably also seeing more cross-pollination these days as well.

I have seen examples of geologists sitting in processing shops helping pick velocities for Prestack Depth Migration in structural plays, ensuring the structural images were as clear as possible, while maintaining a velocity model with the geophysicist and processor.

You also mentioned a very important point, i.e. ‘pay attention to pitfalls’, and that would be aided immensely if the geophysicist has garnered enough knowledge and experience. Right?

Sometimes experiencing pitfalls is what educates us the most! The more knowledge and experience you have the more likely you should be to identify potential pitfalls. Nevertheless, sometimes the more you know the less inclined you are to listen, which can be another “pitfall” or blind spot!!

Again, one of the best ways to avoid pitfalls is to bring together the “collaborative brain”, via multidisciplinary peer reviews, mentorship, capital management processes, etc. And yes, typically you expect someone with many years of experience to have a better understanding of pitfalls that corrupt an interpretation. One of the biggest pitfalls I have seen is management not providing enough time to the multidisciplinary team to fully understand a program’s pitfalls, whether they be seismic, reservoir, or execution driven.

By way of technical communication, we can all share and learn from each other. We do see many articles published in periodicals on different topics, but seldom do we come across an article on pitfalls. Why do you think people are reluctant in communicating on this topic?

Perhaps the easiest answer is because you don’t really see a pitfall coming most of the time. There have been a number of articles, discipline specific to certain pitfalls but you have to go out and look for them. When people encounter a “pitfall”, they often consider it a personal mistake instead of a chance to learn and educate others.

I believe your favourite projects are the ones that employ integration of geological, geophysical and engineering inputs, and then you come up with a model of reservoir characterization. Tell us all about some such projects you carried out.

The majority of my professional technical career focused on highly integrated projects and teams; reservoir characterization of CO2 and waterfloods in carbonate and clastic reservoirs; structurally complex, compartmentalized thrust belt plays. The most successful projects were the ones where the teams were highly integrated (reservoir and production engineering, geologist, petrophysicist, geophysicists) and had to be to fully understand the complexities of the reservoirs.

Often you find this team arrangement but each person is actually working almost completely independently, providing their point of view on where potential issues are with sweep efficiency and best methods for field optimization. A truly integrated team is one where each team member is striving to understand what the other technical member is contributing and everyone is learning why each discipline is critical to achieving the best outcome, even if the outcome is to sell the property.

From the beginning of your career you need to take an integrated approach to how you work.

When you look back at your professional life, what do you think you missed out on, and what did you gain?

I really do not believe I have missed out on much. I have had a wide and variable career. When I was in undergrad and going through my masters degree at Baylor University, we had one of the best field oriented programs anywhere and since then my career has been interesting and exciting.

I’ve done lots of field mapping from Austin Chalk to the Ouachita and Arbuckle mountains in Oklahoma, and west Texas Guadalupes. I have worked carbonates, clastics, thrust belts, CO2 and waterfloods, reefs… wow, not much missing here except for heavy oil!!

I was fortunate enough to work my way through my doctorate teaching structural geology labs and working part time for the Oklahoma Geological society. This provided an opportunity to get paid to learn, and certainly helped with the rent!

At Texaco I worked with very passionate people who loved what they did and we supported global projects as well as our Permian basin projects, collaborating with the research lab, as much of the carbonate expertise was in Midland.

On the lighter side, Victoria, how would you react if someone said ‘practice is prayer, performance is meditation’?

Interesting question! I suppose I would equate practice to achieving greater performance and when I perform at my best; as a person, an employee, a friend, a wife, or as a leader it brings a greater feeling of fulfilment into my life, and hopefully to those around me.

I would also equate it to peak performance, without practice you do not gain mastery; without mastery you do not gain meditation or peak performance.


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