World-class training for the modern energy industry

Meet the Expert: 5 Minutes with Rachel Newrick

calendar April 4, 2024

We sat down with Rachel Newrick ahead of her upcoming GeoLogica course, which she is co-leading with renowned professor John Randolph: Practical Seismic Interpretation (G027)

What is your field and specialization? 

I am an exploration geophysicist with a specialty in seismic interpretation. Effectively, I analyze seismic data to advise where to locate drilling rigs to maximize the chance for success in finding hydrocarbons. In classes, I explain that we are investment advisors to our companies. 

Tell us a bit about your career in geoscience and your road to teaching. 

Wow, that’s a big question. Back in high school in New Zealand, I’d always loved science, particularly physics, so I started in a combined chemistry and physics degree at Victoria University of Wellington. To fill in some classes I took geology because you got to take up to three field trips every year. I thought that sounded fantastic because I love hiking and being outside. During my second or third year, someone said, ‘Why don’t you take geophysics? If you do a geophysics field trip, you get to blow stuff up.’ That sounded pretty cool! Aside from that, geophysics really quantified the geology for me. I had more of a mathematical / physics type brain – I want concrete answers. In geology, you can have a lot of big questions but in geophysics you tend to try and quantify things a little bit more. So, I did my undergrad in geophysics and then, being a good New Zealander, I went backpacking around the world for the next three years, travelling to Central America and Europe followed by nearly a year in Africa. 

When I got home, I found I couldn’t get a job because I’d been out of school for three years but had no experience so didn’t fit any job requirements. My honours supervisor in New Zealand suggested I get a graduate degree to reset my education – I could then try to get a job straight afterwards – so I headed to the University of Calgary, Canada. Once there, I enjoyed my time so much and travelled so extensively for conferences and internships that my supervisor threatened to take away my passport, so I would finish the actual degree! One of the things I loved most, and I was good at, was teaching. I always had teaching assistantships and was asked, for example, to help teach an igneous field school down in Death Valley, California. And, as I said, I’m a geophysicist – why wouldn’t you pick a geologist? He said, ‘Well, because you can teach.’ So I said, ‘What type of rocks are we looking at? Dacite? Andesite? Basalt?’ He replied, ‘See, you know more than most Canadians about volcanics because New Zealand has lots of volcanoes!’ It was great, aside from the heat.

I feel as though I could learn to teach anything. If you asked me to teach you how to ride a motorcycle, I could. Anything I can do, I can teach someone else to do. As a teaching assistant in 4th year Geophysical Interpretation for Dr Larry Lines, I commented that it was ridiculous for students to spend hundreds of dollars on multiple textbooks and we should have one textbook and that we should write our own. I encouraged Larry to write a textbook and he said I would have to co-author it. So, before I got my PhD, I had a published textbook – too funny! 

My undergrad degrees were in geology and geophysics, so structural geology forms part of my background and the co-supervisors for my PhD were Dr Deborah Spratt, structural geology, and Dr Don Lawton, geophysics. So, I’ve always had that crossover. During my PhD, I had internships with Oxy, Exxon and Veritas but started working for Nexen in their New Growth Team when I graduated. We looked at Canadian opportunities in the foothills, fold and thrust belts, the plains and shale gas basins. I became certified first as a professional geologist and then as a professional geophysicist with APEGA and truly sit on the boundary, being able to talk in both languages and live in both worlds. It is really helpful.  

As a new graduate working for a new company, I always loved to share information. If I was looking at my seismic data and saw something that was absolutely fascinating, I’d write a one page note and send it out to all the geophysicists in the group, division or company. Or, I’d I just take a screenshot and write a note about what I thought it was and I’d put it on the wall and say to everyone walking by, ‘What do you think this is?’, and if no one at the company I was working at had any idea what’s going on, I’d phone Apache or I’d phone Talisman or I’d phone another company and say, ‘Hey, buddy, do you know what’s going on?’. So, with that in mind, I started organizing lunch and learns, or impromptu lunch gatherings. I did a talk series with Paul Anderson, from Apache at the time, called ‘Strange but True Stories of Depth Imaging’ and ‘Strange but True Stories of Synthetic Seismograms’. We got people in the industry together and we showed them random anonymous case histories and asked them to look at the wacky things that happened, so we could all learn. These were voluntary, just a love of sharing and helping other people learn. For my own learning. That’s just sort of a natural trait.  

Then Nexen sent me to the UK on an expat assignment in London and I lived there for two years working in the North Sea, which was absolutely fantastic. But I wanted to explore the frontier so when I had the opportunity to work for Cairn Energy in Edinburgh I took it. Talk about a career highlight! I loved my job; I loved the people I worked with. I loved the environment. It was absolutely phenomenal. We drilled a number of frontier wells in West Greenland, not with commercial success, but certainly with enough indicators to be interesting. I then got promoted to Exploration Manager for the Mediterranean and North Africa, while still working on technical geophysics challenges for the company. Flying to places like Cyprus, Greece and Morocco to meet with different people and discuss projects had me in my element because I got to share information, to learn and to transfer knowledge back to the company. What I learned I wrote up as tips and tricks. If I saw something interesting in a data room and thought, ‘Wow, that’s a great way to do that’, I’d write it up – it didn’t matter whether it was specifically associated to my field or a communication thing or a soft skill; I felt that we needed to learn from it. 

After three years in Scotland, my partner and I decided we really wanted to get back to Canada – we’d only done two skiing trips in five years and we were used to skiing every weekend, so we moved home and I started consulting so that I could have more flexibility as to how I control my time. Not long after returning to Canada I got a phone call from John Randolph. There was a quite well-known Calgary based geophysicist, Bill Nickerson, who had been teaching an introductory course in seismic exploration who sadly became unwell and subsequently passed away. As he pulled back from teaching, he was asked who could teach his course and he named me. John and others started asking around and my name came up a few times, so they reached out and said, ‘Hey, would you be interested in teaching?’ 

I just loved taking courses that were taught by people who worked in the industry, someone who’s been there. So, likewise, I can stand up in front of a class and talk about why it’s so important to get a well tie correct or why we need to identify this funny-looking thing because we’re going to be spending $120 million on a well seeing if we’re right. So, doing due diligence in the geoscience analysis is really important. You never want to say, ‘Oh, yeah, well, I guess I knew we could have found volcanic rocks instead of the prognosed…’. You’ve got to be able to quantify the risk, or at least acknowledge the variables. I feel I’m able to bring some of my experience from frontier exploration, shale gas exploration and other interactions in the industry. Also, because I love teaching and love having people actually grasp the material and have ‘aha’ moments, I work really hard to make sure that everyone in the class has a good experience and takes enough away that they can continue their learning journey after the class. John moved on to Geologica and I’ve now been asked to co-teach this class with a view to potentially teaching it on my own on the future. 

Give us some highlights of your time out in the field

The bulk of my job is spent at a computer interpreting seismic data, so the opportunities to get in the field are for general professional development, site visits to look at project specific geology or during drilling operations. I’ve taken professional field courses in France, Colombia, Egypt, Montana and Alberta, and every single one of them has stuck with me. Early in my career Nexen sent us on a new graduate field trip every year, that we had to participate in planning and teaching: to Quebec, the East Coast and Saskatchewan. I thrived being outside trying to unravel the mystery of the rocks.  

Aside from professional development, getting into the field to better understand the petroleum system is critical for cementing ideas, and for allowing the team time to think as they work together on the challenge. I found this to be especially true on the West Greenland project. In West Greenland the outcrop is phenomenal because there are very few trees, and you’re able to step through all of the rocks within the petroleum system: the source, reservoir and the seal, if there’s no cloud! For the most part, it was spectacular. Two non-geological things, stuck with me: the sense of scale is missing so distances and elevations are incredibly hard to judge, and it is so ‘white’. I’ve never looked at anything white again thinking that it was really white. The scale, well that messes with your mind: when a Zodiac takes people to shore, because the bigger boat won’t get there, you watch it and you’re thinking, ‘Oh they are going be there in a few minutes.’ And it gets smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller and you’re thinking, ‘When are they going to get there?’ It’s absolutely incredible. 

The last aspect of getting out in the field, for me, includes visiting drilling operations for projects that I’m involved with. I was on both the drill ship and semi-sub rig drilling the Atammik wells in West Greenland, and overheard one of the tool pushers say, ‘What the hell are we doing out here?’ Those were his exact words. So, after confirming with my boss, I asked the driller, who’s basically in charge of the operations, whether they would like me to put together a presentation on what we’re doing out here. ‘Sure.’ So, I put together a somewhat generic 30-minute presentation about petroleum exploration from start to finish. ‘This is what a petroleum source migration pathway is . . . hydrocarbon travels through the sub surface, it gets trapped at this location, it gets sealed in. And my job as a geophysicist is to identify that on seismic data, work with the geologist to understand the migration pathways and petroleum system. And, along with the entire team, we estimate that our best chance for finding hydrocarbon is *here*. So, right now we’re drilling this well . . . We’re in a frontier basin and we’re going down to test whether there’s any hydrocarbon in this trap at this location. And once we get down there, we’ll need to do the wireline logging operations to collect data from the well so that we know what’s going on there and plan what we can do next.’ It turned out that because the well wasn’t a commercial success the guys were thinking, ‘Why are we not just packing up and going home?’ I explained, ‘If we pack up and go home, we’ll have just spent $120 million sticking a 6-inch borehole in the ground down to 3.5 kilometres. But if we take our time and go right down to the bottom and we measure all the properties of the subsurface, we measure the resistivity, the conductivity, the sonic velocity and the radioactivity, then we can calculate rock properties, and if we take these measurements really carefully, we can do a good job of characterizing the subsurface. We can say, “This is what we believe the rocks to be, and they have these properties.” These are the details of the hydrocarbon indicators that we found and we can use that information along with the seismic data to have a better chance of success when we go to drill the next well. So, although we might be spending a couple of million dollars and a few extra days collecting data and you may think, “What are we still doing here?” it actually makes it a worthwhile exercise.’ I did that talk twice – for the day and night crews as they came off shift – and the mood on that rig shifted. The entire team was more engaged in what we were doing. Even if they were just turning a wrench somewhere on the rig, they were helping get that valuable information to help us have a better chance of success with the next location. A number of people came and thanked me afterwards, and, more importantly, we got great wireline data from that crew. They took their time, they were diligent and if something didn’t seem to be right, they didn’t just keep going past it, they notified us and we went back and reran sections and it was absolutely fantastic to feel the sense of camaraderie on that rig where everyone was working together. 

I think that every single rig operation should inform all their workers what and why they’re doing what they are doing every time. When I was in Yemen working for Nexen, I did the same thing. I would talk with the drillers, etcetera, and explain to them exactly what the petroleum system was, what our concept was, why we were doing what we were doing. And now they’re not just turning the drill pipe to get into the ground, they’re searching for the X formation and they’re helping contribute to this massive project. I think that was a teaching highlight for me – I think that presentation was actually titled ‘What the hell are we doing here?’

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

Well, if I wasn’t a professional geophysicist, I would be a professional motorcyclist, whether that be a motorcycle instructor, a racer, a tour guide, a motorcycle-something! I. Love. Motorcycles. And between my partner and I, we have ten in the garage, including my MV Agusta Brutale that has 144bhp at the rear wheel and will go from 0 to 60 in 3.2 seconds or so, not with me on it! I love riding. I’ve ‘ice raced’ (with studs in the tyres) on a lake at -26°C. I love flying through the air on a motorcycle. I like back-country riding. I’ve ridden across Canada twice on a motorcycle, and down to Mexico and back. In my first year of riding in New Zealand, on a Yamaha FZ250, I rode 32,000 kilometres. I love to ride.  

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

What it’s about is fairly easy. It’s a journey from learning where seismic data comes from, how it’s acquired, how it’s processed, how we get it to a state where the interpreter can look at the data and gain meaning from what they’re seeing. But it’s also understanding the physics behind it, how we get the different wave forms we’re looking at. It’s understanding the pitfalls – how could we be looking at something that’s misleading us? And then it’s understanding the subsurface and the petroleum system enough to say, ‘You know, we think there’s a trap here; we think there’s some source rock here; we think there’s a seal.’ And then thinking about how we are going to take that knowledge, with our interpretation and present it in a way that can be understood by our team. We’re doing this while looking at both conventional and unconventional petroleum systems, stratigraphic traps, structural traps, along with many challenges that a seismic interpreter may face. 

It’s intended for a new graduate, early career geophysicist, or someone who may find seismic interpretation to be of general interest i.e. people who work in the team such as engineers or geologists. Team members need to be able to speak the same language and ask the right questions. If they know that it’s possible to modify the depth conversion to get a slightly different image, the team can have an informed discussion about the uncertainty in the depth and size of the trap. Aside from early level career petroleum scientist, I can also see, for example, management taking the course. Someone with, say, 20 years’ experience but it’s been a long time since they’ve actually sat down and thought about the geophysics and various aspects of seismic interpretation. We get a variety of participants on the course and the reality is that, depending on who’s on the course, there’ll be a slightly different tone or focus to the material that’s presented. I find that, if I get a lot of engineers and some managers and geologists, rather than early career geophysicists, I’m giving more of a generalized presentation of some parts of the material. If the course is full of early career geophysicists, then it may be more technically focused on some specific aspects that they’re interested in. I always take a poll at the beginning of the class and find out what everyone’s experiences are. We cover all the material, but I make sure that I delve into the areas that the class are interested in and work on the fly – just like we have to do in the petroleum industry. 

Tell me about your recent Canadian Distinguished Lecture Tour

For 2022–23, I was honored to be nominated as the Canadian Society of Exploration Geophysicists (CSEG) Distinguished Lecturer, which basically meant I was sponsored to create a one-hour lecture on a subject of my choice to be presented at as many universities and geological surveys across Canada as possible. I decided to make it a road trip and ended up speaking at 24 different locations. For me, it was a career highlight to engage with students and faculty across the country on a topic that I felt was important. Initially, I was going to talk about some aspect of petroleum exploration, like synthetic seismograms or the phase and polarity of seismic data, but quite frankly a lot of people working in geoscience departments have no real interest in petroleum or seismic, so I took on the challenge of looking optimistically at a future in geoscience with ‘Geophysics…the future is so bright, we have to wear shades’. Sadly, students are too young today to remember the song! Regardless of what happens to the petroleum industry, geoscientists, geophysicists and geologists are going to be required in every aspect of our lives moving forward. Maria Capello and co-authors compiled a Geophysical Sustainability Atlas mapping out the link between geosciences and the 17 United Nations sustainability goals.  They illustrate that geoscience can be mapped to every single one of them, like finding energy, finding water, government policy, etcetera, and call for all geoscientists to share that message. I think it’s really important for people to know that the skills they’re gaining in geoscience are valuable for every aspect of life on this planet and it’s a really worthy thing to continue as a career, so I used my CSEG DL to bring that message to students. I enjoyed having conversations about a sustainable future with people across the county and continue to have the same conversations in my classes. 

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

I think the two most important things for anyone in their career is to always have a sense of curiosity and to be responsible for your lifelong learning. I often see people sent on only one course a year and think they can’t take any other courses. But we can teach ourselves in many ways – walk in and have a conversation with a colleague. If someone else has taken a course, ask them what they learned from it or what were their best takeaways. I truly believe that every person who takes a course should go back to their company and do a one-hour lunch and learn on the course they just took. As part of the courses I’ve typically been teaching, I have all my students do a two-minute presentation on what they felt was an important aspect of the course and how they’re going to take it back to their office. On Monday morning, they can hit the ground running and try a new concept that they hadn’t thought of before. 

So those would be my two big things – curiosity and being responsible for your own lifelong learning. If you’re always learning, then you’ll always find yourself positioned to take on new challenges and you’ll be resilient when you need to be. And resilience is key in any industry. 

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

How controversial do you want me to be?  

GeoLogica: As controversial as you like. 

Honestly, I think a big challenge right now, quite frankly, is public sentiment. For years, petroleum geoscientists have provided the energy needs for the planet, and we continue to do so. But there seems to be a bit of demonization of what we’re doing and for hydrocarbon itself. Hydrocarbon is portrayed as the evil of the world. The reality is, people around the world would not have the standard of living, not be able to survive in cold climates and not be able to drive or fly in the manner that they’re able to without it. How else do you fill up your car in 3 minutes and drive for 1000 kilometers? It’s an absolutely incredible resource. I fully believe that we should do everything as environmentally friendly as we can. No one wants to destroy the planet. No one wants to hurt the environment. Not a single person I’ve worked with. But we do have to take risks in order to utilize the resources of the planet and it’s really hard to be demonized at the moment. So, I think that’s a challenge for people coming into the industry and often, as the public sentiment declines, people are looking at other options. But we should realize that the petroleum industry is still making a massive contribution to what’s required on the planet. And it’s not just petroleum for energy, it’s petrochemicals for plastics, synthetics rubber and fibres, adhesives, paint, clothing, medicine and all the other requirements for hydrocarbon. We should be very proud of that and proud of being part of that supply chain. The better we do our jobs, the more efficient and effective we are as geophysicists and geologists, the more we reduce risk, the more we use less resources to find the same hydrocarbon. If I can work on a technique or on an area and only drill three wells to find the same amount of hydrocarbon instead of using seven wells, then I’ve prevented four wells from being drilled. To benefit our companies and the planet, we should work in the most effective way possible. I believe that all geoscientists should read The Geophysical Sustainability Atlas and get a sense of how we contribute and how we may personally contribute in the future. I think people should be proud to be a geophysicist or a geologist. I’ll stay proud to be any type of geoscientist.  

Give us your best / worst geoscience joke?

I don’t have a geoscience joke up my sleeve, but I’ll tell you my favourite chemistry one: 

Two chemists walk into a bar. 

The first chemist says to the barman, ‘I’ll just have some H2O.’ 

Her buddy says, ‘You know what, I’ll have some H2O, too.’ Then drops dead shortly afterwards.


Find out more about Rachel and John’s upcoming course here: Practical Seismic Interpretation (G027)