World-class training for the modern energy industry

Meet the Expert: 5 Minutes with Malcolm Ross

calendar April 12, 2024
Malcolm Ross

We sat down with Malcolm Ross ahead of his upcoming GeoLogica course  Transition Skills: From Oil and Gas to Geothermal (E573)

What is your field and specialization? 

I am a geologist by training, with a bachelor’s, master’s and PhD, and I’ve worked a lot in the geothermal area. My master’s degree was in plate tectonic modeling, and paleogeographic and paleoclimate modeling, and when I worked for Shell, that’s what they hired me to do. But I wanted to get into the innovation side at Shell and so I joined a team called Gamechanger, which is an angel investing entity within Shell. That got me into the innovation space. From there, I wanted to move into geothermal energy because I thought it would be a way to have a positive impact on the energy transition while using my geological skills.  

Tell us a bit about your journey into teaching.

When I finished my master’s, it was a downtime in the oil and gas industry, so I said to myself, ‘OK, I’ll go get my PhD.’ But by the time I finished my PhD, the oil industry had gone through a full boom-bust cycle, which is fairly typical, and it was another downtime. I always thought I would be a professor, but many university departments weren’t hiring. So, I started my own company and did a bunch of my own work. But I had always wanted to teach – I wanted to pay it forward. So, I persuaded Rice University to let me teach there as an adjunct professor; I didn’t receive pay because it would have been a conflict of interest with my other jobs. Plus, it would have just made for more tax paperwork. I asked them to take what would have been my minimal salary and use it to pay a graduate student to help me as a TA. I did that for over a decade. It has been really rewarding to hear either through LinkedIn or back channels that a student has transitioned their career based on my teaching. Just the other day, a student told me he was in my class because another student had told them it was the best course they had taken. That student said it was the most useful course they ever had at Rice, and it had nothing to do with what they were studying, but now they use GIS every day. That’s very rewarding.  

When I got into the geothermal space, I wanted to help university students who felt a little trapped in their oil and gas career path. This generation’s inner psyche is much more sustainability- or green-oriented, and they feel guilty about getting into oil and gas. They’re looking for a way to apply their skills – just as I saw an opportunity to use those skills in geothermal. I didn’t even know that geothermal existed when I was at university; I didn’t even know there was an opportunity there. I am trying to make as many of them aware of the opportunity as I can. 

Tell us about a favourite memory from fieldwork or field training? 

I have a couple, but let’s go with the one with my PhD advisor, a guy named Peter Vail, who is quite a famous stratigrapher. During my PhD, my advisor suffered a major brain trauma and nearly died; it was touch and go for quite a while. He returned to Houston, received a lot of physical therapy, and recovered to the point where he could go back to teaching. He was fully paralyzed on one side of his body. When he got back to teaching, he needed someone to help him because he really had no way of retaining short-term memory. If students asked a long-winded question, by the end, he would lose track of what they said at the beginning of the question. His long-term memory was perfect – better than mine – but it’s one of those brain trauma things where you never know how the brain is going to respond. Anyway, my favorite memory from fieldwork is that we arranged for him to go out in the field in this state where he was pretty disabled. We organized a field trip to the Guadalupe Mountains out in west Texas, which was sort of his home turf, his favorite fieldwork area, and a great place to take people to see sequence stratigraphy. We had a group of students and some scientists from an oil and gas company, and we were able to visit roadside outcrop. The bus would pull up to an outcrop right on the side of the road and he would use his cane to indicate the different rocks and what was visible in the outcrop. The joy that he felt being able to get back out there when he had mentally written that off as just not possible! So, my favorite memory of going out in the field is not anything to do with the rocks. But the personal connection and the joy of seeing someone who’s suffered trauma and never thought they’d get to do something again when they get to do it. The joy and the excitement that they felt in the field was special for me. I continue to see him – he is in his nineties now and still functioning, although still paralyzed on one side of his body. I’m having lunch with him after this interview! 

Tell us about your upcoming course with GeoLogica – what is it about, and who is it for? 

The course is about the fundamentals of geothermal energy. The point is to take people quickly through my journey from being an oil and gas expert to becoming a geothermal expert. What are the fundamental skills needed? What transferable skills do you have? What skills need to be slightly refocused to do geothermal? The target audience is people in the oil and gas world who want to make that transition. Some of them might be coming straight out of school, and some of them might have 20–30 years of experience. However, all of them will be looking for an understanding of the opportunities and how their skills might fit. That’s the point of what I’m doing. 

Tell us a fun fact about yourself that most people don’t know.   

You can probably tell that I’m kind of comfortable in front of the camera. And the reason is that, as an undergraduate, I did a double degree in geology and theatre! So, I’m actually a teacher with acting training. I had to choose whether I would go do my master’s in geology or fine arts and theatre. I struggled with that decision for a long time. Eventually, I picked geology because I thought there’d be more jobs available. There are a lot of unemployed actors out there, right? Remember that old joke: How do you get the attention of a good actor?  ‘Waiter! Waiter!’ Well, in Houston, both when I graduated with my master’s and when I graduated with my PhD, the running joke was: How do you get the attention of a good geologist? ‘Waiter! Waiter!’ So, I was not sure I made the right decision! But I think the teaching I do is a form of theater. It’s improvisation. It’s technical improv, but it’s still improv. And that’s what I specialized in when I was an undergraduate – improv, stand-up comedy, and Shakespeare as well. But I won’t do this interview using the iambic pentameter! The acting comes through in answering students, responding to students, and energizing students – it is a form of theater.  

I actually continued acting during my master’s degree work; I did some outside theater work and performed in Houston while I was doing an internship there. It was a show that was going on the road to Broadway and they asked me to quit school and join the cast. Again, I struggled, but eventually, I said no. I wanted to finish what I had started. I went back to my master’s thesis. When the show went on to the next town, Indianapolis, it collapsed, so I was glad I’d made the right decision that time! But, anyway, the fun fact is that I could have been on Broadway. I could have been a contender! 

What is the biggest challenge facing the sector today from your perspective? 

The biggest challenge in the geothermal sector is scaling – geothermal currently provides just 0.4% of the energy into the grid, which is essentially nothing globally. That’s a little bit unfair because geothermal energy actually has two parts – one is making electricity, but the other is the direct use of geothermal heat for heating homes and doing industrial work, etcetera, and they never talk about that. That’s really the better way to use geothermal energy because it uses 100% of the energy; while converting it to electricity, you normally get less than 15% efficiency. You waste 80% or more of the energy in the conversion. If geothermal is going to have an impact, though, it’s going to have to scale up and that means going to different parts of the world, rather than just the spots where you see boiling water coming out of the ground, like in Hawaii, Iceland and California, and around the Ring of Fire. You have to be able to go everywhere. That’s really been a focus of what I’ve been doing, trying to figure out how to make geothermal work everywhere and then, if it’s successful, how to grow it. For example, one of the companies I work with is called Eavor. They’re a closed-loop geothermal company. They have a project near Munich, Germany, that will start producing power in the third quarter of this year, to power and heat a town outside Munich. If it works, they have dozens of new projects lined up who have said they’ll sign on the dotted line. If they are successful, the challenge will not be ‘Can Eavor do this’, but rather, ‘How are we going to service dozens of customers at the same time’, especially when it takes a year to drill each well for each customer and there’s not enough land rigs in Europe to do that. 

The challenges are growth-related challenges at first. Then, once we can show it’ll work, it’s how to make it widespread. The only way to do it is to transfer human resources from some of the oil and gas work to geothermal energy. You’re not going to build it from scratch. It’s going to take too long.  

So, that’s why I’m doing this class. I’m feeding the beast. We’re trying to get it to grow. It’s a growth-related challenge; it’s not a dying industry. It’s a ‘Where am I going to find my next job?’ kind of problem. 

What would be your advice to junior geoscientists starting their careers today? 

I’ll tell you something – and this advice may not be so much for juniors but actually for some of the people who might be coming to this class and transitioning their career from one area to another, and that is this – I mentioned that I worked for Shell in their Gamechanger team, angel investing, taking ideas from the back of a cocktail napkin and turning them into something investable – that was the target. So, I had a business card that said my title was ‘Gamechanger’, and I would hand that business card out and people would say: ‘Gamechanger, that’s a cool title – what do you do?’ And that’s what a business card should do. It should start a conversation and be memorable. And people would come back, years later, and say, ‘Oh, you’re the guy who had Gamechanger on your card, right?’ Titles matter, and if your title says Geophysicist or VP for Marketing, or something like that, it’s not as memorable. So, when I took my last job at Shell, they allowed me to create my own job and my own title. The title I selected was based on the fact that I needed to encourage people to ask me to tell my story. So, I gave myself the title ‘Black Swan Detector’. That had levels to it. So, Black Swan is an event. For example, COVID was a Black Swan. No one expected it. It was huge. But once it happened, people said, ‘Oh, it was obvious that it would happen sometime.’ And that is what defines a Black Swan event – large, unexpected and, in hindsight, predictable. I was looking for Black Swan ideas that Shell could invest in – ideas that no one thought would work but eventually were shown to work and then, all of a sudden, it was a big deal. That’s what I think closed-loop geothermal is – a Black Swan idea – it’s unproven, unexpected and could be an enormous opportunity if we can apply it everywhere. By the way, I also chose that title because I liked the acronym ‘BS detector’ – that described a lot of what the job was. It is, as you may know, about being able to realize when it’s never going to work; it doesn’t obey the laws of physics, so forget it. I had to use a bit of a BS filter.  

Now, my title is Geothermal Evangelist, and that’s what my business card says. And again, it is the same thing, people ask: ‘What’s a Geothermal Evangelist?’ So, my advice, and this is kind of a little weird kind of thing, but it works, is pick a title that will cause people to ask what you do.  

Recently, after hearing about my title, a couple of guys I was presenting to were whispering in the back row, and eventually, they introduced themselves – one was a Chief Marketing Officer and the other was the Chief Financial Officer of a startup. They went on to ask their CEO if they could change their titles, and he said, ‘Sure!’ So now, if you meet these two guys and see their business cards, the Chief Marketing Officer card now says, ‘Chief Storyteller’, and the other guy, who was the CFO, took the title ‘Chief Truth Teller’. And so, they go out and hand out their business cards together, and it is memorable, right? And that’s the key. That’s the key element. It’s kind of a strange piece of advice, but get a title that makes people want to know more about you. 

Give us your best/worst geology joke? 

Depending on how you interpret best . . . I’ll even make it a geothermal joke. How about that? 

What do wind turbines think about geothermal energy? 

They’re big fans.