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Digging Deeper with Lisa Stright

AAPG "Energy Insights" Podcast, Episode 6

AAPG "Energy Insights" Podcast, Episode 6


Digging Deeper with Lisa Stright, Assistant Professor, Department of Geosciences, Colorado State University/Co-PI, Chile Slope Systems Consortium. AAPG "Energy Insights" Podcast, Episode 6.

Full Transcript

VERN STEFANIC: Hi, and welcome to AAPG's Energy Insights. I'm Vern Stefanic. And this is a new podcast from AAPG that today is digging deeper by having a conversation with one of this year's speakers for the AAPG, AAPG Foundation's New Distinguished Lecture Series. Our guest today is Lisa Stright, assistant professor in the Department of geosciences at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

And incidentally, Lisa's DL talk, which is available for either downloading or streaming on the AAPG website-- and it's a good one-- is titled "Template based Modeling, bridging the gap between quantitative outcrop studies and subsurface reservoir characterization." We'll talk more about that in a moment. But today we get to know a little bit more about Lisa and the work that went into her research and the passion that brought her to this moment in her career. So Lisa, welcome to Digging Deeper.

LISA STRIGHT: Thank you very much.

VERN STEFANIC: It's really great to have you here. And we always like to-- especially with our Distinguished Lecturers-- try to get an understanding of how you even got into geology, how you started liking it. And just from the little bit that I've been able to learn about you, you have a pretty unique path into the whole thing that started when you were just a little girl, actually. Did it not?


VERN STEFANIC: Would you tell us a little bit about that?

LISA STRIGHT: So I grew up in the oil patch, so to say. My father is a petroleum engineer. And as a child, I knew I loved computers. And I was good at math and science. And with a father as an engineer, I ended up going into engineering.

But my father, looking into the future, said a whole barrel of water is going to be more valuable than a barrel of oil. And so I ended up in environmental engineering. And for the first couple of years after graduation from my undergrad in environmental engineering, I worked in the field remediating oil and gas well heads.

And just again had a passion for getting back into computers and computer modeling, and so went back and got a graduate degree in geological engineering, not knowing at the time that it would start introducing me to geologic heterogeneity and modeling and trying to understand the complex interaction between what we model in the earth. And so that's how I ended up in geology.

VERN STEFANIC: And eventually, this is going to take you to Stanford University, right? But before that happens, I'm always intrigued by how we connect the dots and get to the places that we are. was There a person or was it a thing? Was there this moment where it's like, oh my gosh?

LISA STRIGHT: Yeah, so after my masters, I ended up working for a software company in the oil industry and was really introduced in the software company to interdisciplinary work-- so geology and geophysics and engineering coming together in reservoir modeling-- but recognized that I really wanted to go back and get a PhD. So I ended up at Stanford and ended up in the petroleum engineering department.

And I learned a tremendous amount there but felt like I wanted to know a lot more geology. And so I ended up TAing a class for Steve Graham. And meeting Steve changed my career path and in a lot of ways changed my life because he introduced me to deepwater outcrops and deepwater turbidity currents and invited me to join the SPODDS, Stanford Project on Deepwater Depositional Systems research group, having the pioneering understanding that what I had to contribute to the group could add to the research being done there-- something I couldn't say at the time.

VERN STEFANIC: Oh my gosh. So Steven Graham-- I mean, I'm not a geologist, and I think most AAPG people know that, although I've been involved with the Explorer for a long time here at AAPG. Steven Graham was influential in my life as well. And that is absolute truth because he helped us out with some stories and in the way that he would do that he made for me, a non geologist-- he made geology come alive. And he made me have this new appreciation for the earth and the way it's formed and it all comes together.

LISA STRIGHT: Absolutely.

VERN STEFANIC: Well, this is kind of cool that we both have that. And Steve Graham, by the way-- some of our listeners may not be aware-- but he's a much, much, much honored professor and geoscientist. He won the AAPG Grover Murray Distinguished Educator award. He's won several awards for his research and for the papers that he presents. He was the SEPM Pettyjohn Medal winner. So my gosh, he's like one of the-- this is so cool that we have-- well, we have something in common.

LISA STRIGHT: Fantastic.

VERN STEFANIC: Although you actually took it and then did some great work with it and actually started changing lives, which I also want to talk about a little bit at that point too. After leaving Stanford-- and now it seems like you have a new understanding of what you want your career path to be. Could you talk a little bit about that and what happened next?

LISA STRIGHT: Well, and Steve Graham actually plays a predominant role in that story as well. I was, after finishing my PhD, just targeting going back to industry, potentially in a consulting role in Denver, Colorado, where I grew up. But Steve emailed me a job announcement for an academic position at University of Utah. And initially, I kind of discounted it and said, ah, I don't imagine myself as a professor. And he emailed it again and said this job description was written for you. You should apply for this job.

And I kind of ignored it. And he finally came into my office and said, you really need to apply for this job. And I was just about to head into the field to do some fieldwork in Patagonia. And put together an application, sent it off, went to Patagonia, and didn't think again about it. And I ended up getting the interview, and then I ended up getting the job.

And it was a trajectory that I hadn't expected from my life, but I can't imagine a better position. It's an amazing job being a professor.

VERN STEFANIC: Oh my gosh. So let's just recap just already to this point-- engineering and geology, industry, but also research and professor. So it's like people talk about wanting to have it all. And it seems like you are having it all. I mean, you're doing so many different things. Any one of those would be a career for a lot of people. How do you do that? Where do you get the energy and the drive?

LISA STRIGHT: I'm really driven just by a passion for the science and really seeing a niche that my research fills and being able to mentor students through the process. I really enjoy that part and teaching as well. So I think there's a lot of excitement in finding your path in life and the energy just comes naturally after that.

VERN STEFANIC: And the passion that you have, which is obvious. And just not talking here, but in the way that you present your lecture, your distinguished lecture-- you can just feel the love and the passion that you have for the work that you're doing come through on that.

But let's talk a little bit about your paper, which I don't want to recreate the whole talk because we want people to actually go and listen to the talk. But we're talking about modeling, and it comes out of work that you've done with the consortium that you have. Could you tell us a little bit about that? And oh, by the way, you also are involved in a consortium that's doing this research-- amazing more. Tell us a little bit about that.

LISA STRIGHT: Sure, so the construction is called the Chile Slope Systems. It's a joint industry project, and I laid it with two other PIs-- Steven Hubbard at University of Calgary and Brian Romans at Virginia Tech. Consequently, we all went to graduate school together and worked with Steve Graham for our PhDs and also did work in Patagonia for our PhDs. This is a continuation of that work, but into a different part of the formation, different part of the base in stratigraphy.

And we're in our sixth year. So we're in our second phase, and we're about to propose phase three to our affiliates. And we have nine sponsors on the project, and we've had dozens of students over the years.

VERN STEFANIC: Well, OK. Can you talk about what you've found so far?


VERN STEFANIC: And in that answer, I'm wondering, is it what you thought you were going to find. Well, I think that the way to answer that for me is that the-- again, leading back to the fun part of my job and the research-- is that this is an interdisciplinary consortium. Brian and Steve are both sedimentologists and stratigraphers and amazing at what they did. And so it's fun for me to come in and use their data and their results from the outcrop studies and to be able to take that data and help us with subsurface prediction-- so really quantify what we're seeing in the outcrops and turn the databases that historically have always been qualitative-- images and papers, measured sections, stratigraphic correlations, but to be able to take that data and put it in a digital format so that we can do statistical analysis and then directly show the implications to float flow and seismic responses in the subsurface.

VERN STEFANIC: Oh, my. Help those of us who don't do research and do something like this all the time. When you do a project like this, do you have an expectation of what you think you're going to find? Do you have a hope for what you think you might find? Or you just don't know what's going to happen and say, well, let's just start looking at these rocks?

VERN STEFANIC: Well, when we write a proposal that we've send to our affiliates, we have a lot of fun brainstorming ideas of what we'd like to do for the next phase. And again, often it starts with thinking about the sedimentology and stratigraphy and the big scientific questions that are facing our community these days and seeing what can we learn from the outcrops. And a lot of the modeling projects just fall naturally out of that because it's then taking the science and what we've learned from the outcrop and saying, now, well, how does this matter in the subsurface.

VERN STEFANIC: How often then are you in contact with the consortium, letting people know what the results are? And I think the core of my question is trying to understand for me-- and maybe for some of our listeners as well-- this balancing act between research, where we don't need anybody getting in our way-- we're in a scientific quest here-- versus the practical applications of what may be coming out of it. What's that like?

LISA STRIGHT: Yeah, so we interact with our affiliates quite a bit. We meet with them once a year at AAPG where we have an affiliate meeting and usually the Sunday before AAPG starts. And we review our results. But it's also a great opportunity to hear from them. And what makes our research better is hearing the problems and the uncertainties that oil companies are facing in the subsurface because, again, for me, particularly on the modeling side, what I do is very applied. And I want to make sure that it's relevant. So those conversations are extremely critical-- so at AAPG.

And then we spend time in the field with our affiliates. And so every year in January or February, depending on when it falls, we have an affiliate field trip to Patagonia. And so we invite our affiliates down and spend the time at the rocks with them. And those are where we have fantastic conversations about, OK, what does this mean in the subsurface, what does this mean for seismic, what we're seeing.

And it's also a time where we as a group, just sit down and have some great brainstorming sessions. We also do a trip to Houston every year and spend a week visiting all of our affiliates, driving all over Houston, and again sharing the results, meeting with people, meeting with asset teams, meeting with discipline teams to just hear more about their work. Sometimes we look at data sets. But we spend a lot of time in the process visiting with our affiliates.

VERN STEFANIC: What has been the biggest surprise to you so far in the work that you've done there on your research?

LISA STRIGHT: I think the thing that's surprising, but then also really fun, is that we do and I do this research because I love it. It's really fun and interesting. And the thing that's surprising and interesting to me is that it's so well accepted or important to the industry, that they want to take our results and use them. And they want more engagement, and I enjoy that part.

VERN STEFANIC: Can you talk at all about what potential practical applications might be coming out of your research? How does this matter to the world?

LISA STRIGHT: I think there's just so much uncertainty and exploring in deepwater channelized reservoirs. And so whatever we can do, particularly in the advent or the new wave of machine learning in the industry-- anytime we can quantify geology and start feeding into those workflows, these more data driven workflows and take the knowledge that we gain from outcrops into the subsurface, I think we can help the subsurface prediction.

VERN STEFANIC: Machine learning-- that's something that I think we need to talk about more because, for some members of the public, they think well we've had geology know for-- how long? I mean, AAPG's been around for 100 years. We've got another 100 years before that over in England-- so a long time.

And there's this feeling like, well, you ought to know just about everything there is to know. And yet we're finding new things. One thing that you said in this research is that there's been surprises that you've had. And now what's going to be the next steps that are going to come? I mean, the future is just as exciting and as intriguing as perhaps anything that we've discovered so far. Would that be an accurate statement?

VERN STEFANIC: Yeah, absolutely and I think what we're seeing is just that, as we progress in sciences, that we are collecting more and more data. I mean, it's not dissimilar to any other industry or any other discipline where data is just growing at an exponential rate. And our ability as humans to interpret and classify that data is limited because of the sheer amount of data.

And in addition, when we start talking about, like I said, outcrop data as well and just sedimentological information and being able to quantify that as well, it feeds directly into workflows for better classification in the subsurface and again machine learning approaches.

VERN STEFANIC: Yeah, yeah. Has there been anything provocative or surprisingly challenging that you've discovered in your research so far?

LISA STRIGHT: Yes, there are certain problems within reservoir modeling that we continue to talk about as a community. And one of those just tends to be are limitations with grids and our ability to capture the heterogeneity that we see in outcrops, that matters, for example, to fluid flow with grid sizes, the types of grids that we have. And I think there's future research directions in trying to solve some of those problems.

VERN STEFANIC: In your distinguished lecture, you go into some of the details of some of these things that you found. Can talk a little bit just about some of the findings that you gained that you're going to be addressing in your lecture? And no, I don't want to give the whole lecture away, but just some of the things that are very important about this talk.

LISA STRIGHT: Certainly. So the fundamental question that I'm addressing in the research is, how do we understand what scale of heterogeneity in deepwater channel outcomes matter for fluid flow and when does it matter. So as a modeling community, we tend to generate a lot of algorithms for modeling to try and capture more complex geology. And in outcrop models we include more detail.

But the question is just kind of a fundamental science question-- is what detail really matters so that we can move forward in a really informed way? And so what I show in the talk is how we go through a process using template based models-- so essentially, a bed scale architecture models directly tied to outcrop to capture what that scale architecture matters and when. And then we find that it's strongly dependent on how the channels stack.

VERN STEFANIC: And what you found, is what you expected to find? Or was there a surprise in that?

LISA STRIGHT: I think the results are intuitive, and it's sometimes how research happens-- you generate a hypothesis and you find evidence that supports that hypothesis. And I have been just very pleased that the results have come out in a way that's so intuitive and clear. And I think now it's almost like myth busters, testing when it breaks down and why because that's when it's critical. To understand the subsurfaces, we start out with a simple case. And then we start playing around with that simple case and understand when it breaks down.

VERN STEFANIC: Will that be part of phase 3?

LISA STRIGHT: Absolutely, yeah.

VERN STEFANIC: God, well I can't wait for that one. It's going to be great. Let's talk a little bit about you as a professor in the whole education route because that's a whole other hat that you wear. And so there must be something in that is compelling to you, satisfying to you, challenging to you maybe. You've mentioned that you love being a professor. Why?

VERN STEFANIC: I love teaching. In particular, the classes I teach are very applied. So I teach well logging and petrophysics. I teach reservoir characterization and modeling, and I teach petroleum geology, along with a set of seminars. And for me, it's extremely rewarding to see students get excited about the material but also gain confidence in the skills that they're learning so that they can put them on their resumes and hopefully find jobs in the industry.

And again, I just enjoy inspiring young students. And it's the same with research and mentoring young researchers and teaching them how to do research and getting them through the process of defining a project all the way through to the end of, hopefully, publishing a paper.

VERN STEFANIC: You talk a little bit more about your role as a professor and some of your observations there, which would be probably just as valuable as your research work. Recently, we just saw that AAPG released some statistics that indicated there's a little bit of an uptick in students who are entering the geosciences at the university level. Some of the graduate students-- that may be job availability related. But there's also an uptick across the board, a little one, in that students are still interested in entering the geosciences, which is good.

But I'm wondering-- what are you seeing in the geoscience students today versus maybe when you were a student? Is there a difference in their expectations or in what they're bringing in at this point in their careers?

LISA STRIGHT: I do still think that students coming into geology are very interested in the field experiences and rightly so. I mean, I think that's a valuable part of any geology program-- getting out to the rocks to see them. I mean, even in the reservoir modeling side, as I always tell my students, that we're building models of the earth. And you got to go out and spend some time observing the earth before you can build good models.

VERN STEFANIC: And that's the fun part too, by the way.

LISA STRIGHT: And it is the fun part, absolutely. And then as far as I think things are changing for students I think-- although the field experiences and the fundamental geoscience knowledge is extremely critical, we're seeing also more requests and more need for students to become more quantitative, to move into a world where they know some coding-- so if they know Python or Matlab and then also to be, not only computationally learned, but also to know some math. And I think that in combination with a really solid geology background is creating a lot more opportunities for students.

VERN STEFANIC: Which I think Mr. Graham was right, Professor Graham was right. This is exactly where you need to be because you understand those elements and how to put those together. Well, that's great. So we should feel hopeful about the future with geoscience coming in and the potential that can be done.

LISA STRIGHT: Absolutely.

VERN STEFANIC: Let me let me ask you just real quickly before we leave. One of your experiences as a professor that was not a Colorado State-- you were at University of Utah. Is that correct? And this was a few years back. But as I understand, you were involved in the Imperial Barrel Award competition, which is a global event where graduate students-- you have geosciences teams from universities-- compete with data sets to try to find the best way where the oil is.

Now you had experience with it. Tell us about your experience. How did your team do?

LISA STRIGHT: Absolutely. So Lauren Birgenheier and I co advised a team of students at the University of Utah for the first time that we ran the Imperial Barrel Award there. And we had an outstanding group of students and as well as a couple of alumni mentors that worked directly with the students on the project.

And that year we were so pleased to win the regional competition. And then from that point, the students went on and won the international competition. So it was a great experience and a fantastic program. The students learned a lot, and they were so glad that they had done it.

VERN STEFANIC: What we found is that students who participate in the IBA competition are actually-- they're the ones that industry is looking for because they have that practical experience. I'm sure you had that, too. Wow.

LISA STRIGHT: Absolutely. I mean, it's a great place for alumni engagement with universities. And it's very good for visibility for departments to be able to show that, hey, we're training students in petroleum geology and giving them the skills they need to interpret seismic data to think about petroleum systems and to be able to go through and do an independent but collaborative project on a team.

VERN STEFANIC: Let's point out that-- you were one of the co advisors and you're now a distinguished lecturer. Lauren was one of the co advisors, and she this year was named the winner of the AAPG Foundation Inspirational Geoscience Educator award. Do those kids know how good they had it with the two of you? That was pretty great.

LISA STRIGHT: Well, Lauren's fantastic and the University of Utah has a very strong petroleum program. So congratulations to Lauren.

VERN STEFANIC: And to you too, by the way. I'll tell you what. Just before we leave, there are two questions that I have. One would be, in your role as the researcher and as the educator, what sort of advice would you give to young people who are just entering the profession today?

LISA STRIGHT: Well, that's a great question on I'm asked a lot because I think sometimes students are a little remiss to enter the industry. It's a little scary with a lot of the overturn happening in companies. And one of the things I would tell students is to, number one, follow your passion, find a niche, find something-- these interdisciplinary gaps or gaps between disciplines tends to be a really good place to sit, be quantitative. And just at the end of the day, follow your passion and continue to do what you love. And the rest will follow.

VERN STEFANIC: What's your passion?

LISA STRIGHT: Starting out as an engineer, I loved solving problems. And then I was introduced to science, and I just loved learning how and why. And so for me, my passion is just the intersection between the two.

VERN STEFANIC: And then this truly is last question-- your own personal aspirations. Where do you see going next? Because you have so much that you have in your life right now and you could go a variety of directions. Or maybe you want to go all the directions. I don't know. Where do you see yourself in a couple of years?

LISA STRIGHT: Hopefully, tenured. I'm in my fourth year, and I just want to continue doing what I'm doing and continuing to grow as a scientist. Every day I learn so much more about geology and modeling and particularly being in an interdisciplinary role. It just feels like learning is endless. And I hope to just keep continuing to learn.

VERN STEFANIC: Thank you. Thanks, Lisa. We've been talking today to Lisa Stright, assistant professor in the Department of Geosciences at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Be sure to check out her lecture at AAPG.org. And then watch this space for more AAPG podcasts that will continue to cover a variety of important subjects, innovative ideas, and intriguing people, including our ongoing Digging Deeper look at this year's distinguished lecturers.

The Distinguished Lecture program is a jointly operated program by AAPG and the AAPG Foundation. We hope you'll take a moment soon to check out the AAPG Foundation website to learn about how you can be part of ensuring the future of geosciences. For now, thanks for listening.

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