Making a Difference: Women in Academia

Do women in academia face the same challenges as their peers in industry?


Editor’s note: Women have made great strides in engineering and the oil and gas industry, achieving success at the executive level and by pursing a career along the technical ladder. But often overlooked are the women succeeding in energy-related academia, providing the backbone research and testing that make many industry innovations and breakthroughs possible. JPT asked Tatyana Plaksina, associate professor at University of Calgary, to query some of her peers about their careers and their important role in supporting the world’s energy industry.

Participants included:

  • Berna Hascakir, PhD, associate professor at Harold Vance Department of Petroleum Engineering at Texas A&M University. She obtained her doctorate in petroleum and natural gas engineering from Middle East Technical University, Ankara.

  • Juliana Leung, PhD, associate professor at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Alberta. She obtained her doctorate in petroleum engineering from the University of Texas at Austin.

  • Zoya Heidari, PhD, associate professor in the Hildebrand Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin. She obtained her doctorate in petroleum engineering from the University of Texas at Austin.

  • Zuleima Karpyn, PhD, professor and Quentin and Louise Wood Endowed Faculty Fellow in Petroleum and Natural Gas Engineering at the Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering at Pennsylvania State University. She obtained her doctorate in petroleum and natural gas engineering from Pennsylvania State University.

  • Mileva Radonjic, PhD, Samson Chair and an associate professor in chemical engineering at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklahoma. She obtained her doctorate from the University of Bristol in Bristol, England.

  • Nancy Chen, PhD, associate professor at the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at University of Calgary. She obtained her doctorate in petroleum systems engineering from the University of Regina.













What do you find most rewarding in your academic career?

Mileva Radonjic: First and foremost, it is the right to speak freely and report the research findings as they are without any agenda. Second, it is the constant pursuit of making the world a better place through application of science, especially on issues that concern the wellbeing of people and the planet, now and for future generations. Finally, working with students and the need to constantly adjust and change to new groups of students who are motivated by different things.

Juliana Leung: Working with students and helping them grow as researchers and scholars are the most rewarding aspects of this job. I am very glad that I can be part of their education and help shaping their future careers.

Zoya Heidari: I love my academic career for four unique reasons. First, it gives me the freedom of working on each and every question that sounds interesting to me. I pick a piece of rock and imagine myself sliding into an undiscovered maze, listening to and enjoying the symphony of rocks and fluids. I think about the world of unknowns in this complex and exciting maze, and each one of them can be a research problem. Developing novel methods and understanding mysteries of complex formations are full of joy for me. It brings satisfaction to my career when these new findings are applied successfully to actual energy-related problems in our industry.

Second, my academic career has given me the opportunity of educating and working with students, the next generation of engineers and scientists in my field, who can initiate big changes in the world. No words can describe what a splendid feeling it is to receive a phone call, a text, or an email from a former graduate/undergraduate student and to learn about their achievements in life and career or to observe my current or former students growing, shining, pioneering new methods in our field, and achieving their career goals.

Third, my students and I have the chance of experiencing countless fulfilling and joyful moments of new discoveries. Any one of these new findings and developments has the potential of solving a challenging problem in our industry. My team has published and presented more than 130 publications at conferences and in the publications of SPE and its sister societies such as SPWLA, SEG, and AAPG, and some have received awards such as the Cedrik K. Ferguson Medal from SPE and distinguished presentation recognitions from SPWLA.

Finally, my team and I get the opportunity of collaborating with several industry partners and observing the direct application and influence of our research findings and developments on energy-related problems in real life, which makes our work truly meaningful and enjoyable.

Zuleima Karpyn: What I find most rewarding in my academic career is the opportunity to make a lasting impact on the lives of the students we serve as teachers, advisors, and mentors. I also take great pride in working with talented fellow faculty members, and the privilege to exercise academic freedom in teaching and research.

Nancy Chen: Training the next generation of petroleum engineers at undergraduate and graduate levels, and being recognized for the research conducted in my group.

Berna Hascakir: Student “thank you” emails after they start working in the oil industry.

What is the most challenging aspect of an academic career?

Radonjic: Universities are becoming more and more concerned with numbers and profit at the expense of ethics, quality education, and truthfulness to the community at large. We are still not as connected to reality and the needs of society, and the ivory towers need to become a thing of the past and integrated more into society without elitism.

Leung: Balancing the multiple roles of an academic is challenging. All the tasks associated with research, teaching, and service can be overwhelming.

Heidari: Sometimes balancing the time spent on different tasks can be challenging, especially during the early career stage. As a university professor, I need to share my limited time among research, teaching, mentoring students, contributing to the department, college, university, professional societies, and my community, writing proposals, papers, and reports, learning, and many more activities.

Karpyn: The most challenging yet exciting quality of a career in the academia is sustaining high levels of creativity in the ever-changing landscape of our discipline. The evolving needs and demographics of our students, together with commodity price fluctuations that drive enrollment and resources, are simple reminders that the only thing constant is change.

Chen: Getting funding to support my research group.

Hascakir: First couple of years, while you are setting your teaching and research plans and trying to build your network.

Did you have an industry experience prior to joining academia?

Radonjic: I recommend it, especially in applied disciplines. In my case, industry experience made my research more relevant to problem solving, and it taught me how to communicate more effectively with industry as the ultimate end users of applied research that I was conducting. Also, in industry you learn how to work in teams and see the world outside of your own career needs.

Leung: I worked for Shell Canada as a reservoir engineer for more than 2 years. I also had a couple of summer internships when I was in graduate school.

Heidari: No, but I had multiple short-term internships prior to joining academia.

Karpyn: I had an internship with Schlumberger in Houston. Since then, I have engaged in multiple industry partnerships and projects that have enriched my experiences with industry.

Chen. Limited.

Hascakir. Yes, I worked for Schlumberger in Latin America (Colombia and Venezuela) and the UK.

Why did you choose an academic career instead of pursing an R&D career with a service or operating company?

Radonjic: In my case, it was the academic freedom to publish and pursue more how something is happening rather than how can I prevent it from happening. Academia offers more flexibility and more variety of questions to pursue. That is not possible in industry, where the needs are always on solving current problems, vs. academia where research can take longer as it involves more focus on mechanisms and more why and how questions.

Leung: I love the freedom and flexibility of being a professor. I get to set my own schedules and goals. I have much more freedom to decide what I would like to focus on (e.g., offering a new course, writing a book, developing a new research direction, or taking on some administrative roles). The possibilities are endless.

Heidari: It gives me the freedom of working on each and every question that sounds interesting to me, without a need for prior approval. Second, my academic career has given me the opportunity of educating and working with students, the next generation of engineers and scientists in my field, who can initiate big changes in the world. These are unique opportunities that can hardly be duplicated anywhere except academia.

Karpyn: My career in academia has been the product of a sequence of opportunities for professional and intellectual growth. In some way, my path revealed itself and I was never confronted with an either/or decision between academia and industry.  Over time, I have increasingly gained more and more satisfaction from what I do, and my strengths and interests have further evolved in alignment with opportunities for advancement in academia.

Chen: I enjoy the freedom to work on what I want and to determine how to conduct the research.

Hascakir: If you are on a faculty, it means that you accept the idea that you do not know enough and are open to learning more, and you enjoy a lot while learning. In operating companies, you are doing research on one single operating company problems, so, your vision is not getting completed and your learning is limited to one country or on similar operations. However, if you are a faculty, several oil companies and oil service companies approach you with several different research problems that they encounter in all around the world which make you to learn more. Also, teaching help you to keep your methodology/approaches easy to understand this way, people from industry can approach you with more interesting questions.

What is the most interesting topic you and your research team are pursuing right now?

Radonjic: Plugging and abandoning wellbores in the Gulf of Mexico for a long time—10,000 years is the target. I feel privileged to be working on the long-term safety of the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem, as it provides livelihood for the entire region, including being a major supplier of seafood for the entire US.

Leung: One particular area that we are focusing on is the design of solvent-based processes for heavy oil extraction. We are studying the mechanisms of solvent transport at both pore and field scales. In addition to mechanistic models, we also develop appropriate scale-up methodologies to represent solvent transport physics over multiple scales of heterogeneities. In some cases, machine learning and data analytics methods are integrated for process optimization and handling uncertainty.

Heidari: My team’s research focuses on developing experimental, analytical, and computational methods and fundamental rock physics knowledge for enhanced reservoir characterization using integrated evaluation of multiscale formation data. Our new rock physics models/methods honor realistic and quantitative rock fabric, geochemistry, and solid-fluid interfacial interactions and bulk properties. The impact of our work is on improved description of multi-phase fluid transport in spatially complex reservoirs, such as carbonates and organic-rich mud rocks, with the intent to enhance production and recovery factors in these reservoirs.

Karpyn: Every project you work on with passionate and dedicated graduate students becomes the most interesting topic at the moment. One of my graduate students, Nirjhor Chakraborty, has been studying distinct feature and mechanisms driving storage and transport in shales. His findings show that the storage capacity of shales far exceeds the available pore space and this excess storage often surpasses 40% of the total gas in place. We also proved that localized high storage of shale gas is not limited to organic-rich regions, and that pore size appears to be a better predictor of storage behavior, with storage being proportional to the prevalence of nanopores and total solid surface area. These results have important implications on how we represent and model storage and transport in tight and ultratight unconventional reservoirs, where diffusion and adsorption-desorption kinetics can control gas deliverability.

Chen: Machine learning methods and their application in the upstream oil industry.

Hascakir: We are working on several different projects for heavy oil, oil sands, and oil shale recovery. Among them are radio frequency heating applications as an enhanced oil recovery method, which is really challenging and rewarding.

What is the “hottest” and most promising research direction for the future of petroleum engineering as a discipline and the industry?

Radonjic: The hottest is a loose term, and it means different things to different people. For me, the long-term impact of hydraulic fracturing is a very important topic. Second is implementation of carbon capture and storage and how to get it done.

Leung: Research that focuses on reducing the environmental footprint and greenhouse gas emissions is particularly important. The sustainability of our industry truly relies on our social license to operate.

Heidari: Fast computational capability has already affected our industry. It has shown its face in automatization of existing workflows, fast multiscale numerical modeling, and use of deep learning and artificial intelligence for decision making. Now that we are expanding our expertise and tools for analyzing and using of data for fast and reliable decision making, it will be very important in the future to develop more efficient and dependable unconventional methods for collecting good quality and real-time data, which honor the complex nature of our challenging reservoirs, not only for the purpose of reservoir characterization, but also for being able to develop efficient and environmental-friendly production strategies.

Karpyn: In my opinion, advancing the frontiers of knowledge in petroleum engineering, as well as in other STEM fields, lies at the intersection with other disciplines, such as computer networks and communications, human-computer interactions, materials science and chemistry, biogeochemistry, and robotics, to name a few.

Chen: Applying machine learning/artificial intelligence in the petroleum industry. Enhancing oil recovery with minimized environmental footprint.

Hascakir: Unconventionals. While everybody defines unconventional as shale, which is an unconventional source rock, my definition for unconventional includes not only the rock but also the fluid and technologies. Hence, heavy oil, tar sand, and all enhanced oil recovery methods will have a future.

Do you think an academic career provides a higher or lower work/life balance in comparison with an industry career?

Radonjic: It provides a lower work/life balance, especially for women who have children. The industry is trying to do more to make child care available and convenient to women.

Leung: Yes and no. The workload can be very high. It is like managing your own business, so it is practically impossible to step away and be completely offline. However, the flexibility associated with this job does allow us to set our own schedules to accommodate other responsibilities in our lives.

Heidari: I do not think that an academic career necessarily provides higher or lower work/life balance. An academic career can be extremely challenging, especially at the early stage. Assistant professors need to establish themselves as independent researchers, lead successful teams, raise research funds to support their students and staff, and gain the trust of the industry, while doing their best to be outstanding instructors and mentors for graduate/undergraduate students. It might be comparable to establishing a successful startup company. Both of these career paths can easily affect one’s personal life and family.

Maintaining a work/life balance is a skill to master with time, patience, and of course lots of support from family and mentors. For instance, I very often work on proposals, papers, and my lecture materials during weekends and very late during the weekdays, sometimes till after midnight. I do not consider it as a violation of work/life balance, because I enjoy it.

Karpyn: I would say that it depends. I presume that people who prefer to compartmentalize work and life, and maximize each separately, would find structured work schedules more suitable in their pursuit of balance. In that case, a career in industry may provide the best work/life conditions. Academic careers, on the other hand, tend to blur the lines between professional and personal. Teaching and research are often driven by passion, accomplishments are personal, and the divide between work and life is less so. Work schedules are demanding, but flexible and negotiable between responsibilities and personal needs.

Chen: Lower.

Hascakir: If you like what you are doing, it balances itself. I can tell that I am working 24 hours a day sometime as a faculty and I have to work even weekends most of the time while I was working for the industry, I was working daily 10 hours and I was not working during weekends if I am not on a business trip. But in both lifestyles, I have a balance. Young people should select a pathway that will make them happy, not a pathway that may make them rich. Because if one is happy, then that person will be successful in her/his job and it will bring money in the end anyway.

Do some of your current students want an academic career? If so, how do you encourage them?

Radonjic: Most of my students would only consider academia if they are not able to get a well-paid industry job. Most of them have debt to pay off and academics are not paid and rewarded as well as industry provides for PhD holders, so I really do not try to discourage them.

Leung: I try to explain the different aspects of this job. I am honest with them about the pros and cons. I also offer some opportunities to mentor junior students in the group and serve as teaching assistants. My goal is to let them have a taste of what a professor’s job is like.

Heidari: Yes, they do. I encourage them to practice being responsible scientists and engineers by caring about the details of what they do and frequently questioning the quality of what they produce, to be creative, to be caring mentors for the junior members of our team, and to improve their writing skills.

Karpyn: I am always open to discuss career advice with my students, but I am equally mindful and respectful of their preferences and choices. I encourage my students to challenge themselves, to recognize their strengths, and to invest in their personal and professional growth. As a mentor of students considering academic careers, I am happy to share my own experiences, facilitate opportunities to build credentials in academe, such as teaching experience, technical presentations and publications, and help them initiate a network of research collaboration through my own.

Chen: Yes. I show them the pros and cons of the job, and encourage them to be independent when doing research work and to get involved with classroom teaching.

Hascakir: Yes, I have two PhD students considering becoming faculty. I educate them differently, and give them more information on why they are doing what they are doing. For example, if they are writing a journal paper, I explain why they need to write a journal paper in more detail and I give them time more to work on their paper, and trying to teach them to become more independent.

What are the most important ingredients of a successful academic career?

Radonjic: Finding a supportive department, surrounding yourself with like-minded people, and learning to write and communicate well. I wish I had those in my career, especially early on. If you are set up to succeed, it is much easier to get there.

Leung: Perseverance—things move slowly in academia. I don’t think there is another job that demands a longer probation period than our tenure process. It is important not to get frustrated and stay focused.

Patience—working with students can be challenging.

Communication—the primary role of an academic is to disseminate knowledge, so effective communication is definitely essential.

Heidari: The first ingredient is enthusiasm for teaching and research. The second one is to dream big and leave your comfort zone every now and then. Leaving my comfort zones has provided me the opportunity to expand and advance my research, become stronger, and experience new adventurous moments. Finally, it is very important to be resilient.

Karpyn: First, “know thyself.” Developing self-awareness is perhaps the most important ingredient of a successful career. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses allows you to identify opportunities where you can contribute at your best, as well as recognize the need to rely on others. 

Second, get out of your comfort zone once in a while, and use it as an opportunity for growth. 

Third, build a professional network and include people whose perspectives and background are different from yours. Those are the ones you are more likely to learn something from.

Chen: Passion, good management skills, and good communication skills.

Hascakir: First, you have to like teaching; it will take 99% of your time. Due to a high teaching load, you will not have a lot of time for research, thus, you need to engage your mind all the time on research, and you need to make writing a habit. Whenever an idea appears in your mind, you need to make a note. You also need to attend conferences to increase your visibility in your study area. These are three pillars of academic life: teaching, research, and service. Success in these three pillars will make you successful in academic life.

Do you think that being a woman provides certain advantages or disadvantages in petroleum engineering academia?  

Radonjic: My personal experience is that my nontraditional background and diverse thinking were a major disadvantage locally, but it was rewarded when my out-of-the-box thinking was the main reason for being funded for a research project.

Leung: I do find that there is a higher load of committee participation, but in most cases, I am quite happy to serve because promoting equity and diversity in STEM fields is important. I don’t think that it is advantageous to be a female professor because of the additional opportunities. Affirmative action is there to correct for systemic (unconscious) bias. There is still much to be done in terms of equity, diversity, and inclusivity, but it is encouraging to see that many universities are now taking positive actions to improve the situation.

Heidari: Being a woman certainly does not provide any advantage. It does not provide any disadvantage either, but I would say that it is in general challenging to be a woman in engineering.

I would like to comment on two examples. The first one is about having a higher load of committee participation and service. Based on my experience and based on the documented research and data, women often get more service load that might affect their performance in other aspects of their career. I see two main reasons for this higher service load. One reason might be the need for diversity in different committees. Thus, women usually receive more requests for service. On the other hand, It is sometimes more difficult for women to say no to a request because they  want to avoid being misjudged on their time management skills or might miss future opportunities if they turn down a request.

I have not experienced funding opportunities available only to women in the field of petroleum engineering. This is a misconception that I often hear about. I have had a completely opposite experience. Indeed, I have heard “no” many times in my life because of my gender, age, or because of biased judgment on my capabilities and strength. Once I submitted a well-written proposal to a funding agency as an assistant professor. The idea was mainly mine and I made a major contribution in preparing the proposal. There were two other senior males involved in that proposal. The proposal got rejected. One of the reasons reviewers listed was that I was listed as the leader and was younger and less experienced. It was suggested that one of the senior males take the lead on the proposal.

I hope to see a day when there is no point in asking or considering such questions.

Karpyn: A positive attribute of being a woman in petroleum engineering is that the lack of representation can raise your individual voice. The diversification of our discipline has improved in recent years and there is a sense of pride in being part of this important cultural shift. The obstacles are real and have been widely documented, including implicit bias, extra responsibilities in the name of diversity, and the added effort required for networking as a minority. However, these problems are not exclusive to petroleum engineering. They are a reflection of change in the right direction.

Chen: I find it is much harder to get funding for a female scientist, especially from the industry. Also, it is harder to manage a research group with predominantly male students. Generally speaking, there are more disadvantages than advantages.

Hascakir: As a female faculty member, I believe we have more challenges than male faculty. Most of the time, I feel like many people may think that I cannot solve certain research problems because I am female. In a conversation with a student, a staff, or a faculty, I am Miss Berna, while a male faculty is X. Even this is showing the mindset of not only males toward females but females toward females. These are my thoughts, based on my interactions with different people. So far, I really do not see any advantage of being a female faculty.