Seismic in the Classroom

Ahead of the Curve

Jeannette Wolak
Jeannette Wolak
Jeannette Wolak earned her doctorate in earth sciences at Montana State University, started her career as a deepwater sedimentologist and went to work as a research geologist with Marathon Oil Corp. in Houston.

When she thought back on her college education, what she had learned and what knowledge she lacked, she came up with this perfect response to the university professors who had shaped her studies:

She became a university professor.

Today, Wolak, an AAPG member, is an assistant professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville, Tenn.

“Our class sizes are less than 15 students, so I get to work with students one-on-one,” Wolak said. “I really enjoy working with students. And, I really appreciate my time with Marathon.”

At Marathon, she worked with open-source software for seismic evaluation. The oil and gas industry began experimenting with non-proprietary seismic software packages in part because of their flexibility and adaptability, she said.

Wolak thought the open-source software resource would be a good fit for Tennessee Tech and decided that some experience with seismic was essential for students considering a career in oil and gas.

That decision was influenced by decade-old research conducted by AAPG member Chris Heath, identifying the skills most important to geoscientists in the North American petroleum industry, she noted.

Heath ranked more than 150 skills and capabilities in determining what industry required from employees working in the geosciences. The top three specific knowledge sets were geology, geophysics and computer science.

Wolak knew her students would carry a knowledge gap into the petroleum industry workplace, or even into graduate studies, if they had no experience with geophysics.

“For a university like Tennessee Tech, we don’t offer geophysics. So the students are already at a disadvantage when they graduate,” she said.

Another reason for introducing undergraduate students to seismic was to help them visualize subsurface geology in three dimensions.

“I thought, ’Let’s bring seismic data. Let’s start using this in the classroom the same way we would the field aspect,’” she said. “You can see things in outcrop. You can see them in the field. Now let’s take it into the subsurface, and use seismic to do that.”

Exposed

Wolak chose software she was familiar with from Marathon, the OpendTect seismic interpretation platform from dGB Earth Sciences in the Netherlands. Last year, the company said more than 2,600 students at 300 universities had used its open-source software.

Universities have free access to OpendTect – a distinct advantage for software used in an academic setting, Wolak said.

In addition to the open-source software platform, dGB offers Open Seismic Repository, a free database of seismic datasets with interpretations.

Using that and other freely available seismic sets, Wolak began introducing her students to 2-D and 3-D seismic interpretation. At one point, she said, the students were surprised to see a curving fault.

“They didn’t realize faults could curve. When you look at faults in the field you don’t necessarily see that curve,” she said.

Wolak found that her students not only enjoyed working with seismic, but also proved to be very adept at writing quick programs and finding online apps to help them with the data.

“The feedback I’m getting from students is very positive. They want to look at more seismic than I can offer them,” she said.

She has no illusions about the depth of learning her students will come away with. Her course is very much an exercise in concept familiarization, introducing ideas like time versus depth.

“It’s very basic,” Wolak said. “These students are not getting a degree in geophysics. But, they are being exposed to seismic.”

A Tech-Savvy World

And, becoming familiar with exploration concepts is an important goal for students in the course. She described it as a practical, résumé-building offering for students who might consider a career in mining or oil and gas.

“Half a semester focuses on mining and exploration, and the other half focuses on the petroleum business,” she said.

The course mostly attracts senior-level students but does include others, and the only requirement is an introductory geology class, Wolak said. The less-experienced students benefit from a strong “camaraderie” in the program, she noted.

“If they haven’t had (a course in) structure and they really don’t know what’s going on with faults, say, there are other students who’ve had structure and can help,” she said.

Wolak finds her students quite able in the physical aspects of geology, in petrology and sedimentation and stratigraphy. The same can’t be said for the numerical aspects of the geosciences.

“Our biggest challenge is developing quantitative skills. Students today are very afraid of math and quantitative challenges,” she observed.

But where the students shine is in computer knowledge and using software tools, and Wolak emphasizes the importance of those skills.

“I tell my students we have a geologist on Mars,” she said.

We don’t talk to that geologist in English or French or Chinese. We talk to it with software, and it responds with streams of data.

Her advice to other geoscience professors:

“Embrace today’s technology,” she said. “That’s one of the hardest parts. We (professors) don’t want to keep learning new software, but our students are so adept at it.”

Wolak, who just finished her second year of teaching, still expresses amazement at the software and technology savvy her students bring with them.

“They are so good at software. They write little tools that even I don’t know how they work,” Wolak said. “It’s kind of shocking to see them just go. It makes me wonder where we’ll be in 10 years.”

Comments (1)

Bringing back geology into Seismic Interpretation
Congratulations Jeannette. You bring a very good point. Over 30 years of my Upstream Oil and Gas work, I have seen the evolution of seismic and its i... Read more
8/16/2014 11:16 PM
Sharma Dronamraju

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Emphasis: Geoscience Education