Women in Engineering: Shaping the World

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Dr. Susan M. Agar

Women in Engineering photos © SpringerMember of the Series Editorial Board, SpringerBriefs in Petroleum Geoscience & Engineering

Leader in Technology @ Aramco Global Research Center – Houston, USA

Tell us about your background: 

I joined the Aramco Global Research Center in Houston four years ago as part of Saudi Aramco’s initiative to access science and engineering capabilities outside Saudi Arabia. In my role, I steer a research group which develops new technologies to predict geologic characteristics in the subsurface faster and more accurately. Geoscience is experiencing something of a renaissance as advances in materials science, imaging, 3D printing and artificial intelligence create new opportunities for technology. My 30+ year career started with a B.Sc. Honors degree in Geology and Computer Science from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, U.K , with a year abroad at the University of California, Santa Barbara. With a generous Shell Scholarship in hand, I completed my Ph.D. at Imperial College, studying fluid flow and deformation in the convergent plate margin of south-west Japan. Subsequently, I worked on sea-floor spreading centers through a NERC Special Postdoctoral Award at the University of Leeds. During this time, I participated in marine research cruises in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, collaborating with researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey, the Russian Academy of Sciences and several universities. With colleagues at the University of Liverpool, I also investigated continental collision and convergent margin processes in northern Pakistan and Chile and within 3 years, I had moved to a tenure track position at Northwestern University, U.S.A. In this role, I led multi-disciplinary, multi-national research programs on geologic processes in Cyprus, Siberia and Iceland, complementing field studies with research cruises under the auspices of the Ocean Drilling Program. Having spent a sabbatical year as an invited Visiting Professor at Stanford University, I was awarded tenure at Northwestern University shortly thereafter. Seeking new challenges, I moved into the oil and gas industry and worked in the Exploration and Production Technology Group for Amoco.  Following the BP-Amoco merger, I was offered the chance to move to Exxon Production Research, only to go through another merger (Exxon-Mobil) two years later. Over the next decade and beyond, I held multiple research leadership positions in the ExxonMobil Upstream Research Company, advancing subsurface technologies, providing technical consulting for exploration and production groups in various countries around the World, evaluating emerging and disruptive technologies and assessing the global hydrocarbon endowment. As business acumen became increasingly important, I pursued an MBA at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, which prepared me well for my 7-year role as Director of an international research Alliance within ExxonMobil. In this position, I implemented a new model for academic-industry collaboration involving 14 university research groups in Europe and North America and 160 researchers. With the opportunity to be part of a start-up research center, I moved to my present role. In addition to my role on the Editorial Advisory Board for the SpringerBriefs Series, I currently serve as Vice Chair for the Board of Directors of Energi Simulation, a non-profit foundation and was recently privileged to receive an Honorary Doctorate of Science from Heriot Watt University. 

Why did you become a Scientist? 

It was largely fortuitous. An aptitude for science and a chance conversation which introduced me to the subject of geology. I knew nothing about geology as I started my undergraduate degree but was attracted to a subject that integrated the basic fields of science and offered potential employment with opportunities to travel. My initial interest was sustained by dedicated and enthusiastic faculty who introduced me to classic geologic outcrops in the UK and Europe as well as the spectacular geology of California. I was fascinated by the processes in the Earth that these outcrops represented. Like so many geoscience students, I valued the mix of science with studies of rocks in far-flung corners of the World. Beyond these early attractions, geoscience offered an opportunity to develop a wide range of readily transferable skills: high resolution imaging methods used in materials science are also used to study rocks; numerical simulations of the Earth apply methods that are used by many other disciplines; processing and interpretation of satellite imagery find common ground with interpretations of seismic data volumes and can be readily applied to a broad swath of civil engineering and defense applications. Today, you’ll find the same opportunities with further links growing between today’s emerging technologies and geoscience. In my academic career, the opportunity to create new knowledge and to share knowledge through teaching and publications was a key motivator. Opening new avenues to students and innovating through multi-disciplinary collaborations were particularly rewarding.  In industry, I value the chance to realize tangible business impacts through applied science. In addition, having pursued research, teaching and consulting in over 25 countries, the insights I’ve gained from interacting with diverse cultures have been invaluable. Whether it be an invitation for chai in a mountain hut in Northern Pakistan or experiencing the political upheavals of Russia in the early 1990s, such experiences bring a deep appreciation of the ways your scientific contributions can impact the lives of others. For me, the primary driver for being a scientist is making a difference. That difference may come from fundamental knowledge, connecting science and technology to commercial  opportunities, or improving the economic situation of individuals or countries.

What advice would you give to young women interested in science and engineering? 

Build a Foundation. Learn to code. If you have an aptitude for mathematics, make the most of it or at least ensure that you develop quantitative and analytical skills while you have the opportunity. These will be readily transferable even if you have yet not chosen a career direction. At the same time, recognize that effective scientists and engineers combine many different talents including interpersonal skills, problem solving, creative thinking and visualization.

Follow your own path. We are commonly cast into pre-determined roles in school or within a company or an institution. Seek guidance from your colleagues and mentors but remember their perceptions of success and rewards may be different from yours. As you progress, be aware that well-trodden career paths may obscure opportunities to broaden your experience and open new doors.

Learn to Fail. Today, there’s a lot of pressure for women to “succeed”.  It’s easy to be influenced by carefully filtered success stories on the internet. Ask those you perceive to be successful about their failures and how they’ve built resilience. Accomplished scientists and engineers know how to learn from failure and put today’s disappointment into the context of their life and career. 

Jump Off a Cliff. You will have the opportunity to work for 40 or more years should you choose to do so. Recognize that your interests and priorities are likely to change. What you enjoy today may not be so rewarding a decade from now and today’s jobs are likely to change with technological advancement. Anticipate the need to disrupt yourself so that you continue to grow throughout your career. Continually build knowledge and skills that will allow you to jump off that cliff for the next move. 

You Get Out What You Put In. My career has benefited tremendously from the generous support and contributions from others. Many gave their time selflessly to educate, to write letters of reference, to identify opportunities and to support behind the scenes. From the earliest point in your career seek ways to contribute to others and recognize that you are not an island. Whatever your individual accomplishments, others will remember and value your contributions to them.

How will you Value your Life? It’s never too soon to consider how your personal values interface with your professional life. You’ll probably encounter numerous situations in your career where you must choose between achieving an outcome and adhering to your personal values or those of your organization. At these times, think about how you’ll look back on the situation at the end of your career. 

Discover Susan's Work: 

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