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Geoteric | June 23, 2022

Geoscience engineering: women making a mark on the world


As part of International Women in Engineering Day, we caught up with Geoteric Commercialisation Manager and Geoscience Engineer, Nicky Tessen.

 With over two decades of experience in reservoir geology, Nicky is instrumental in the development of the Geoteric software suite, adding value to extensive artificial intelligence (AI) workflows that allow the energy industry to understand the world beneath its feet.

 We asked Nicky what sparked her interest in geology, discussed her experience working in the sector, and looked at how to encourage, promote, and retain women and girls in this exciting career.

Nicky, can you tell us about your role as Commercialisation Manager?

Let’s start with the software. Geoteric enables geoscientists to enhance their insight into what lies beneath their feet. Geoscientist data evaluation combines with Geoteric’s computer-based AI software and algorithms to provide accurate, detailed seismic interpretation that improves decision making.

When we talk about data here, we’re talking big data. This seismic data lives and runs on large, distributed computer systems and has a web application interface for the geoscientist to use. These AI-driven workflows require interplay between physics, geology, computer science and maths, and you need advanced software, licensing, monitoring, and many other science disciplines. That’s where Geoteric comes in. It brings all of these elements together in one software, framework and interface.

My job is to communicate with experts in each of these disciplines and, with my background in geology and geological workflows, understand and implement the best way for a human to use the software interface. The objective is to produce software that is easy to use, stable and fit for purpose.

I work with the Geoteric team to design the functionality of software and workflows, as well as run testing programmes to enable us to release the software to an exceptional standard.

An important part of my role is connecting with people. Pulling subject matter experts in to build out a workflow is key to understand what can add real value to industry.

 How would you describe your experience working in this sector?

As a female in geoscience, I have often been a minority, whether that be as one of few females in a team, or sometimes even the only one. In university, I was one of three women studying geology, and there were no female lecturers.

As expected, that could have felt a little isolating at times. While it didn’t deter me from my career choice, I know it could have deterred other women. In my professional career, I have been lucky. I’ve never felt anything but support throughout my journey across all teams and companies I’ve worked with.

In the last 10 years or so, I’ve dealt exclusively with software development. This is rather challenging because you require a broad understanding of several different disciplines. It’s impossible to be a specialist in every single area, so it’s essential to communicate well and ask the right questions to experts in these fields, like AI and machine learning.

I rely on these experts to share their deep subject knowledge, and they rely on me to deliver a product that’s the best form possible. You can’t produce this outcome if there isn’t a foundation of trust and open communication. Software development allows you to have a wide support network where collaboration is key.

How did you become interested in geology, and what convinced you to pursue it as a career?

I always loved nature. I can thank my family for igniting that passion when I was young by introducing me to animals and the wider world. We would love watching Sir David Attenborough documentaries. That’s where my excitement started.

At school, geography really caught my attention. Particularly the physical geography, but not so much the economic side. This proved to be a bit tricky when I started looking into university courses, because you can’t really pick up geography without the economic element. I decided to investigate other courses.

Geology wasn’t (and still isn’t in many cases) a topic you could do at my school, but I had a teacher that I could talk to who had a geology degree. She explained how geology was the study of the world and its formation over time, life on the planet, how ecosystems have evolved and shared exciting aspects with me, like volcanoes and earthquakes.

These were all topics I loved. This encouragement in school from a teacher I could trust, alongside my early introduction to nature and the planet from my family, led me to pursue my degree in geology.

Diversity of thought in geoscience engineering for energy projects will be essential for us to confront the global energy transition. How can we to draw women in to kick start a career on this exciting path?

There is a real belief that studying geology or geoscience engineering inevitably leads to a career in hydrocarbon extraction – an industry currently seen as the big bad wolf. Oil and gas is not a place where young people would chose to work at the moment.

While oil and gas will continue to be a part of our future energy mix for quite some time, many people, not just women, are put off entering the traditional energy sector. We need to showcase how geoscience can be applied across the full energy mix to navigate this barrier.

Subsurface skills that are developed in geoscience are transferrable across sectors, and individuals with this skillset have a unique opportunity to play an exciting role in our future. I don’t know how we do it, but we need to change perspectives to demonstrate the vast array of roles that geoscience can enable.

Geoscience should be a very desirable place for people to enter, but this has been tainted by the current stigma around the hydrocarbon industry.

Are there any barriers that you think are holding women back to achieving their full potential in this sector? How can we promote, encourage and support women in geoscience at all levels of their career?

Yes, there are several barriers that exist. Stereotyping women to be not as competent as men and not taking them as seriously is still an issue. There may also be comments about your visual appearance, which can knock your confidence, especially as a young woman. I think one of the biggest challenges, which transcends geoscience into most industries, is the feeling of being left behind if you have a family.

Since the 90s, we’ve seen a huge improvement across these challenges. I don’t think these problems, especially in the energy and geoscience sectors, are as big as they were. But I think they are still there at a smaller scale. They may be harder to recognise, but they are still causing harm and we need to personally challenge bias constantly.

Awareness of these issues can only come from speaking up when you spot anything that could potentially be harmful. Everyone, both men and women, has a moral responsibility to promote fairness and provide support. Company-wide awareness on bias, how to recognise it, and action that can be taken are incredibly helpful to forge an inclusive work environment where colleagues support each other.

Where practical, I think there’s also a place for blind evaluations when it comes to promotions and recruitment. Zero tolerance and family friendly policies, and cultivating an open workplace where everyone can speak up is essential too.

Something I’m also quite keen on is better support systems for women during menopause, and for the subject itself to not be taboo. I’ve read recently that 20% of women going through menopause either don’t take promotions or give up their jobs as a direct consequence of menopause symptoms. These can include anxiety, fatigue, or memory loss.

I know there’s a lot of emphasis on encouraging women and young girls to join our sector, but we need strong menopause and family support systems for them throughout their career. We need to get much better at having a workplace that’s compassionate and accepting of everyone.

Menopause does affect women physically, but also mentally. You’re convinced you’re not able to do what you used to be able to. The effects of menopause need to be widely understood and not just swept under the carpet as ‘women’s issues’. Losing women in their 40s and 50s when they have the deepest understanding in their forte and can act as role models for young females is incredibly disappointing.

I could hope that some of these women go on to participate in school programmes and teaching, but I don’t know. We may just lose them entirely, which is a huge waste.

Many argue that schools need to raise awareness of geoscience and pique interest in young girls at an early age. What action do you think needs to be taken to ensure we’re moving talent up the funnel?

There are several actions that can be taken, and not all of these rely on schools. Igniting early interest through role models may drive girls to discover more about geoscience.

As a kid, I used to want to be an astronaut. Before our discussion, I was looking at a list of recently selected NASA astronauts and came across Jessica Watkins, who is also a geologist. What a way to inspire young girls into geology!

While role models in the media are encouraging, having a role model in your local community is quite important too. This doesn’t have to be influence from your family – it could be from friends or colleagues of family.

Geoscience workshops and field trips built into school curriculum are a great method to pique interest, as are placement programmes, where students get to experience geoscience first-hand in the field, and school visits.

Ideally, science needs to be introduced to children as early as possible. I think I was about eight when I was exposed to my first science experiment – a memory that sticks out in my mind. We were seeing how far fluid travelled up a bunch of straws at different widths. A very simple experiment, but one that I remember vividly.

It’s evident that there are a few tactics available, but how do you ensure exposure to science for all? If your community doesn’t have local role models or engaging programmes, then you don’t get exposed, and science isn’t an option for you. It’s an important challenge to overcome, and we need to work out how to break the chain.

As part of our expert team, Nicky Tessen is helping Geoteric’s clients expand what’s possible in the world of geological representation. Discover more about Geoteric AI here.