Meet Zack Lawrence, Acquisition Project Technical Lead Geophysical Operations at ExxonMobil. Zack got his undergraduate degree from Missouri University of Science and Technology (formerly University of Missouri at Rolla) and his PhD from University of Memphis.
What first interested you in pursuing a career in Earth science?
Being interested in the outdoors was my first introduction to Earth science. Then it started by taking a class in physics. Because I liked that I looked for more science classes in high school. I followed those classes with an introductory class in geology.
What area of science did you study?
My undergraduate degree is in geology with an emphasis in geophysics. That came about by liking both geology and physics and finding a marriage of the two. My university encouraged us to have an emphasis, whether it was physics, geochemistry or environmental; I chose physics. I got my graduate degree in in earthquake seismology.
As a student, what were some of the challenges you faced transitioning from being a student to an early career scientist?
I think one of the big ones is the bureaucracy in industry: trying to find that balance between doing the work that is assigned to you and then attending all of these organizational meetings. As a student you are mostly focused on the science – the data and the models, everything that goes with the science. In industry your project may be more focused on the business and it may be hard when you first get out of grad school to understand the business drivers that may influence your work.
You went into the energy industry, and currently work for ExxonMobil, how did you end up in the position you are in now?
I got a job in the energy industry through a contact of my graduate advisor. My advisor got an email one day and a specific oil company was looking for a geoscientist with specific skills so he recommended me. Looking back at being a graduate student I think the big lesson is that networking is what got me job in industry. Networking at conferences, networking with your advisor and tapping into your advisor’s contacts—sometimes that is what leads to a job, which is what happened with me.
What do you like about the work you are doing now?
I like the pace of it, and I have a lot of variation in what I do. I collect seismic data, which is how we see into the Earth. If we want to explore hydrocarbons, then we need to explore seismic data and map out the rock layers in the sub-surface. There is a vast array of what you can do in geoscience; you can collect data, and process data, and there can be a lot of opportunity in industry. There is lot of satisfaction when you work on these large-scale projects and I get to work on world-class data sets and with great people.
Where do you see your work taking you in the future?
Working in industry, these are very hierarchical organizations, so you are always working your way up these organizations. I see myself having more projects and more responsibility. In industry you usually go one of two ways, either more the technical track or the managerial track— I see myself going down the role of being a technical expert in the energy industry.
What’s the most exciting part about your work now?
An exciting part is when data that I worked on becomes a hydrocarbon discovery. That can be years away from when I actually work on a project, so there’s a delayed gratification. A more instant gratification is when we complete a project on time, on budget, and get a high quality data set while collecting it all in a safe manner and nobody gets hurt. When I finish a project like that I feel great.
What do you find the most rewarding about working for ExxonMobil?
One of the rewarding things about Exxon is the mix of work and personal life. They really care that you have a balanced work and personal life. I get to work hard, travel a lot to places I never would have—but at the same time they reward your work-life balance and make sure you have a strong home life to go with that.
Of the fellow students you graduated with, were there others that went into the energy industry?
Yes, a number of them. I think a lot of them that came here to Houston are doing something similar, some aspect of seismology.
In your opinion what are some of the most challenging things facing the Earth science talent pool today?
There is a lot of competition in academia and industry for positions. On the one hand, there is a lot of opportunity for Earth scientists so I think it is a great area to be in. On the flip side there is a lot of competition. I remember being a graduate student and being worried about finding a job in Earth science, there was a lot of competition then too.
What advice would you offer Earth science students today to help them find a successful career in the future?
I think they need to make their career their own. For me, my undergraduate research was very crucial in my career path. I don’t want to say everyone should follow this, but I couldn’t have done what I am doing now without my undergraduate research. My advice is to find the funding or the advisor who can facilitate it, and do your first research project early as an undergrad.