PNAS: Grant Goodyear, Oil Industry Nuclear Physicist

I've decided to do a new round of profiles in the Project for Non-Academic Science (acronym deliberately chosen to coincide with a journal), as a way of getting a little more information out there to students studying in STEM fields who will likely end up with jobs off the "standard" academic science track.

Eighth in this round is Grant Goodyear, who started life as a theoretical chemist, and now does nuclear physics in the oil industry.

1) What is your non-academic job? These days I'm a nuclear physicist who works on the design and characterization of nuclear well-logging tools that are used in the search for oil. We use high-energy neutrons and gamma rays to interrogate properties of rock formations downhole (in the vicinity of the well bore; even MeV neutrons only look into 10s of centimeters of rock) such as the formation bulk density, the formation porosity, and the mineralogy of the rock. Although we do have a laboratory filled with various types of rocks that have had holes drilled in them that we can run our tools through, much of my work is done using nuclear Monte Carlo to model the effects of different "environmental conditions"--different borehole sizes, different positions and orientations of the tool in the borehole, different drilling fluids, different formation fluids, etcetera--on the various tool responses to get a better understanding of what the tools are really telling us and how to come up with better tool designs that give us better ideas about where oil and gas actually are, and what is going to be required in order to extract that oil and gas.

As a complete aside, that scene from Iron Man 2, where Tony Stark builds a particle accelerator in his house? We do that downhole all the time. We actually have tools that generate neutrons on demand by accelerating Deuterium atoms into a Tritium target, producing 14.1 MeV neutrons and He atoms via a fusion reaction.

2) What is your science background? I have BS degrees in Chemistry and Physics from the University of Missouri at Columbia, and a PhD in theoretical Chemistry from Brown University.

3) What led you to this job? I needed to solve the two-body problem, which at the time meant a job in Houston. Houston's two major industries are Energy and Medical. Before coming to Halliburton, I worked at the Houston Medical Center doing computation biochemistry, working on new methods to extract the three-dimensional structure of proteins using cryo-electron microscopy. Halliburton was interested in me because I had a background in Monte Carlo techniques, even though I didn't have any nuclear background. Halliburton pays much better, and my funding wouldn't be tied to the NIH budget, which at the time was looking like a definite plus.

4) What's your work environment like? (Lab bench, field work, office, etc)Most days I'm in a corporate cubicle, with a laptop running enterprise Windows 7, and a workstation running decidedly non-corporate linux. I also have access to an experimental lab filled with various types of rock formations that our tools can be run through, fortunately with experienced technicians to do the real work in the lab.

5) What do you do in a typical day? My typical day varies a lot. In the last couple of weeks I've dealt with a miscommunication that had people in the field using the wrong version of our software with one of the tools we recently updated, helped a neighboring acoustic well-logging group dig through some C code, spent a few days in an IPython notebook analyzing data and working to construct some real-time data sanitizing algorithms for that same group, and started writing an internal paper describing how our current neutron tools work and how we could make our next one better than the current versions.

6) How does your science background help you in your job? My Monte Carlo background was what got me the job, and I still do a significant amount of modeling, data analysis, and downhole nuclear science. The actual nuclear science itself, though, isn't much above the level of any graduate Intro to Nuclear Physics class.

7) If a current college student wanted to get a job like yours, how
should they go about it?
A PhD in Physics or nuclear engineering is pretty much a prerequisite. The work itself may or may not really require one, but the culture right now is such that nobody will get in the door without one.

8) What's the most important thing you learned from science? Yeah, no idea how to answer this one that doesn't sound like something out of a bad fortune cookie.

9) What advice would you give to young science students trying to plan
their careers?
Once upon a time, I was one of the lucky few theoretical Chemists to have a tenure-track position at a major research university, and I gave that up to work in industry so that I could live in the same city as my wife. I might not be the best person to ask about career planning, since there wasn't a lot of planning involved in how I got from where I started to where I am now. I'm quite happy with my career; it just hadn't been part of a well-designed plan.

10) (Totally Optional Question) What's the pay like? The pay is pretty good. As a "Principal Physicist" I make a tad over $100 000 per year after being here for 9 years, I have decent if not lavish benefits, and I get four weeks of vacation per year that I never quite manage to use.

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