A Conversation with Robert Stewart, Ph.D.

Article from the GSH Journal

Rob Stewart

The SEG’s incoming President, Rob Stewart, deprecatingly calls himself a “least-squares fit to an excess of interests.” After a high school program centered on music, he studied math and physics at the University of Toronto then spent a winter trekking in Nepal and exploring Thailand and India. He returned to Canada and worked at the Princess Margaret Cancer Hospital developing ultrasonic imaging systems for cancer detection, then went to M.I.T. for his Ph.D. in geophysics. After subsequent employment with Chevron, Veritas, and the University of Calgary, he began a new adventure in Texas - where he currently holds the Cullen Chair in Exploration Geophysics at the University of Houston and is Director of the Allied Geophysical Laboratories.

In this interview, with his former graduate student, he speaks about his background and beliefs, next scientific adventures, commitment to diversity, passion for developing settlements on the Moon, and what are the biggest problems to tackle in geophysics and the world in general.

1. When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up? And what skills and principles from those aspirations apply to what you do now?

As a little guy, I actually wanted to be an American Indian because, in my books and pictures, they seemed really fit, had cool buckskin clothes, and knew how to live off the land. As I got older, I aspired to help the world somehow and planned on being a physician. My mother was a nurse and her capabilities and compassion made the medical world seem so rewarding. Later in high school and while studying in a music program, I was keen to become a jazz musician. In university, I was trying to be all of those (chuckle). Along with studies in physics and math, I worked a memorable summer in northern Ontario with two superb geophysicists (Dr. Gordon West and the late Roger Young), had an internship with Chevron in Calgary then took a year off school to travel in Asia. On return, I undertook medical research in Toronto. But, after further some introspection, I decided that geophysics was the place for me. Geophysics combined science, travel, the outdoors, great people, and a viable career. Plus, growing up in Canada - as a very resource-dominated country - geoscience was a reasonable pathway. I had a wonderful example in my father, who was involved in the political and business worlds. He’s an excellent communicator and taught us kids to be responsible with our finances. This helped balance some academic and artistic inclinations.

2. Who is your role model? Have you ever met someone whose work you truly admired?

I especially admired Albert Schweitzer for his remarkable roles as a musician, physician, writer, adventurer, and philanthropist. The great historical explorers (Marco Polo, Magellan, Vasco da Gama, Hudson, Burton) were always alive in my mind. Meeting some of the more recent giants (Sir Edmund Hillary, Scott Carpenter, and John Glenn) made their visions and accomplishments more real. My parents are part of that “Great Generation”. That remarkable, conscientious, hard-working, and generous generation that has given so much to us. My parents continue to be a deep source of inspiration to me.

3. What’s the most rewarding thing you’ve ever worked on, that you’re most proud of?

The first thing that comes to mind would be my graduate students. Nothing is more rewarding to me than to see students grow academically and professionally, make discoveries, finish their programs, and prosper. I’m fortunate to have been able to supervise some 80 graduate students through convocation so far.

My good friends and colleagues, Don Lawton and Jim Brown, and I founded the CREWES Project – one of the early university-industry geophysical research consortia. Through its reports, meetings, surveys, staff, and students, we were able to advance elastic-wave prospecting methods and have a lot of fun.

I’ve been able to set up a Geophysics Field Camp at UH and run it for the last 10 years. Because we’re in the field and all working together intensely for several weeks, there’re real connections made. I believe strongly in the value of making measurements, undertaking surveys, and assessing the data. I’d suggest that every geophysicist is made better by some field experience.

Technically speaking, having helped develop the fields of VSP, tomography, and multicomponent seismology has been very satisfying. Now working with 3D printing, drones, and fiber-optic sensing is exciting.

In the scientific world, publishing is a big part of our deliverable; its analog in the music realm is recording. I was fortunate to sing with a group, now called Revv 52, which has produced a number of recordings. I did a vocal track, a Motown classic “Just My Imagination” on one of the CDs, which I felt was one of the most satisfying things that I’d ever done. Also along happy musical lines, a charming videographer, Andrea Arias, produced a video of a song that I’d written about Mt. Everest.

4. What makes Rob Stewart, Rob Stewart? What’s your brand?

I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity and some capability to explore a number of countries, cultures, activities, and ideas. In geophysics, it’s been a blessing to practice geophysics in the class, lab, industry, and field – with many colleagues and students. I try to bring as much energy and enthusiasm as I have to everything that I do – although, I’m not that great in the morning. Nonetheless, I’m lucky to be healthy. I try to carve out time to exercise most days – with a view that while there are plenty of other demands, I wouldn’t be as long-term useful if unhealthy. It’s a bit tricky to see yourself as does the outside, but I hope that any brand or reputation that I have has something to do with making a positive professional and joyful social impact, doing something original, and helping advance lives.

5. You ventured into drones, that was an indicator of embracing where the future is leading. What’s next?

It’s really fun to fly and photograph with drones. After years of development in defense, unmanned aircraft systems (UAVs or drones) are now in commercial and individual hands. Meanwhile, drone capabilities, application, and regulation are advancing rapidly. I think that the drone’s contributions in geophysics will include two broad areas: Fast, detailed, and inexpensive surveying for surface character (for example, topography and cover) and subsurface potential fields. And second, moving stuff around. It’s said that drones are well suited for dangerous, dirty, or drudgerous tasks. Seismic deployments can sometimes fall into those categories. So, with some background as a private pilot, I mocked up a quadcopter with geophones as landing legs and we test flew it. To my surprise, the concept worked and, on landing, had pretty good recording fidelity. We continue to work on seismic drones and I’d envision them being a nice part of many resource and hazard surveys a few years down the road.

Another exciting technology is fiber-optic vibration sensing. The fact that a thin string of glass can make hundreds of motion measurements is little short of magical! There have been quite a few borehole seismic surveys done with fiber sensing systems and this is where a bunch of our work is located.

What’s the next big thing in exploration geophysics? Undoubtedly, there are still huge prizes in energy and resources: Petroleum, lithium, uranium, heat, fresh water … Then, urban geophysics, smart and resilient cities, natural hazard reduction. Last year Houston and area were inundated by Hurricane Harvey which caused some $180 billion in damage. This financial loss is of similar size to the whole annual US oil industry. Additional Hurricanes Irma and Maria plus the West Coast fires brought total losses into the $300 billion range for the year – not to mention untold human suffering (along with many acts of heroism). How can geophysicists help with that? How can we apply our techniques? I see us doing much more geotechnical engineering and hazard mitigation work in the future. The beauty of geophysical exploration for hydrocarbons has been that you can make a discovery and profit handsomely. An investment dollar should be paid back in several years and generate a healthy income thereafter. In the hazard world, like insurance, you might spend $1 say, to possibly not lose $100. Very different economics. But, with vast increases in infrastructure and its vulnerability plus population growth, the equation is becoming more and more compelling.

6. What’s one trait that will shape the future of geophysicists? What will successful leadership of the future look like?

Curiosity. We need to value and nurture curiosity. I believe that most invention and innovation, which the future certainly needs, start with a puzzle or idea or conundrum – Why? What if? We need the luxury of noticing a problem or pursuing a puzzle along with the persistence that will be required to solve it. If I can, the next trait is personal energy – the will, drive, chutzpah, umph to make things happen.

7. As SEG President-Elect, what is your commitment to diversity and inclusion?

Perhaps, being a geoscientist makes the appreciation of diversity easier and the importance of inclusion more clear. We have seen valuable contributions from a wide variety of people and places. Our science is global. Resources are distributed worldwide. Many of us grew up reading science fiction where a remarkable set of possible futures are explored. I feel particularly blessed to have grown up between two wonderful and capable sisters along with a talented younger brother - I regularly experienced different viewpoints! It is so important that we strive to have everyone able to get and take a fair shot. Economies, social values, and personal roles are all evolving. In the SEG, we are trying to provide a friendly and motivating place for all. I would like to see support offices in numerous parts of the world, further programs for different experience levels and specific scientific interests, encouragement of under-represented groups, and additional connections with nascent technologies such as remote sensing, GIS, planetary exploration, and various new engineering disciplines.

SEG aims to develop the science and people of geophysics - to increase prosperity. I go back to the 4C directive: Create, communicate, conserve, and commercialize geophysics. This takes all types and talents. We are a mix of student, young professional, mid-career, senior, and retired groups. SEG is now almost 90 years old and it was born because of a new target (petroleum) and new technologies (seismic, gravity, magnetics). These were the economic and technical drivers. There are a host of new drivers now – a variety of resources, infrastructure development and protection, different demographics, and vastly improved technologies. Our SEG members are exceptionally diverse by many measures and we’re trying to keep up with them in some areas as well as advance them in others.

8. NASA is going back to the Moon. What is your view on that?

As we have more understanding and delight in our cosmic neighborhood and greater ability to travel to our sibling planets and moons, I’m a big believer that we should go back to the Moon. It’s fairly close, readily accessible with current technologies, and full of exciting possibilities. Several years ago at the Johnson Space Center, we trained the new crop of astronaut candidates in the methods of exploration geophysics. They were fast studies! The goal, at the time, was to get them experience in contact surveying with a view to their eventual landing on the Moon and maybe Mars. Unfortunately, this visionary Constellation program was canceled, but it looks like there’s new support to have a permanent presence on the Moon. Because the Moon is much less expensive and less risky than going to Mars, many more organizations can have a role. For one group going to Mars, we could have a hundred going to the Moon. Establishing a permanent lunar presence will fire-up imaginations, motivate kids to study science and engineering, teach us how to live in another world, and give us a structure and demand for discovery of all kinds. Imagine going there for the weekend – now, that’s a HoneyMoon (laughter). It’s so exciting that private companies like Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic have entered the space realm. At the University of Houston, we are working on sensors for rovers, the properties of meteorites, and re-analyzing Apollo seismic data. I hope that we get to have a lunar visit someday!

9. What will be a surprising development in science and technology in the near term, say the next 25 years? What would surprise you socially?

A stunning discovery would be if we found evidence of life or sentient beings in other planetary or galactic places - There must be somebody out there somewhere! In the meantime, I think that we’ll be tinkering much more with life and genetic engineering. There will probably be male pregnancy. Of course sensors, machines, computers, and analytics will be much more advanced and further integrated into our lives. With economic and demographic change, increasing lifespans, more human-like robots, further interconnectedness, there will undoubtedly be many types of interpersonal relationships and groupings that would seem quite strange to us now.

10. Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk or Bill Gates?

I grew up more with the Gates and Microsoft story (plus Jobs and Apple). And like many witnessed the remarkable change from slides to PowerPoint, film to digital photography, pay phones to Smartphones. Gates was in the first wave of computer geeks who really changed the world (and has now led the world in philanthropy). Nonetheless, I had the recent opportunity to hear Jeff Bezos (who spent part of his childhood in Houston) speak at the Explorer’s Club in NYC. He attributed much of his success to his parents and discussed converting a substantial part of his Amazon fortune to space access and exploration via his company Blue Origin. Interesting that other technology titans, Elon Musk and Richard Branson also have the space bug.

11. What’s your current read?

I must admit that I’ve got piles of partially read books and dog-eared magazines in every corner of my home and office. Most of my reading, outside of Dan Brown and the like, is non-fiction. Right now, I’m reading a biography of singer-songwriter, Gordon Lightfoot; an investigation into why there seem to be bursts of creativity at certain times and places, “Geography of genius” by Eric Weiner; a book on “Big Data” by Brian Clegg; Roel Snieder and Jen Schneider’s wonderful monograph on “The Joy of Science;” as well as some more controversial books such as “Jews, Confucians, and Protestants: Cultural Capital and the End of Multiculturalism” by Lawrence E. Harrison; and “Inconvenient Facts” by Gregory Wrightstone, which provides an alternative interpretation of some climate data. For a little lighter fare, I’ve turned to Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson, who recently gave a fabulous presentation at UH, with their book “We Have No Idea: A Guide to the Unknown Universe” and Cham’s comic strip, “PhD - Piled Higher and Deeper”. They basically poke fun at professors and the academic world – which has many acres of fertile ground for satire!

12. What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a young person just starting out? How to be the next Rob Stewart?

Be enthusiastic (and involved). Whatever you do, try to do it well. Bring your energy to everything, then you can do almost anything. The key is to be keen. Make a contribution. It’s also important to nurture one’s enthusiasm by discovering and making time for what is enjoyable. In career terms, I think of a Venn diagram with three intersecting circles to help determine a life pathway: What are you good at? What do you like doing? What can make a living? The intersection area of these circles is quite possibly a good place to pursue. Then do the Myers-Briggs personality indicator – it’s really helpful to further understand yourself and in what professions people like you have been happy.

13. How did you find time to be a professor, researcher, business owner, musician, and leader in the community?

Hmmmm – well, we all get our 24 hours a day. So, what do we do with them? I’m pretty accomplishment oriented, so I try to structure my time accordingly. Some other people, who otherwise seem happy, don’t suffer from this problem! I have several ways to manage time. I focus my efforts on what is most meaningful for me (family, friends, science, health, charity, and fun). Purpose propels and contributing compels. Nonetheless, like most people, I love empty calories in food and leisure– however, they have to be quite limited. Thus, there’s a certain amount of discipline required. It’s important to not be sloppy with work or relationships by being as present and conscientious as possible. On one of our hectic Houston streets a few weeks ago, a fellow in the car next to me (with his elbows on the steering wheel) was texting, talking, and eating while driving. You don’t want to be that busy.

14. What’s your life motto? Is there a quote or person that you keep in mind and aspire to in your career approach?

When I look back at influences, there have been a number of mottos that have distilled or crystallized important wisdoms. The motto of my high school, Barrie District Central Collegiate, was “Labor omnia vincit” – Work conquers all – and the school, to its credit and our development, really emphasized that. The University of Calgary’s Scottish Gaelic motto is “Mo shuile togam suas" which is translated as "I will lift up my eyes". I find that inspirational especially when the small stuff becomes weighty and I need to rise above it. The Stewart clan’s motto is “Virescit vulnere virtus” which is translated as “Courage becomes greater through a wound”. My interpretation of this is that hardship makes you stronger and that virtue can be found through sacrifice. I was in a restaurant that had a number of beautiful old English inscriptions in Latin – a useful one was, “Vir prudens non contra ventum mingit”. That one is going to have to be homework, but involves a wise person, Mother Nature, and a strong wind. I’m going to coin my own motto right here, “Ad astra per ingenium – to the stars through creativity.”

I was raised in the Anglican (Episcopalian) tradition and keep in mind many of its teachings. Like other practices, its history and geography are fascinating – the journey of beliefs beginning with Abraham in Iraq several thousand years ago, through Egypt, Israel, Rome, refined via Reformations in Western Europe and eventually transplanted in North America. A remarkable path. A life-long quest of mine is to try to understand other great wisdoms and apply their learnings. Ultimately, one set of equations seems to describe our physical universe. So, you’d think that we should be able to arrive at a universal set of beliefs too.

There are several quotations that inspire me: In high school, we performed the musical South Pacific. One of the songs says, “You’ve gotta have a dream, if you don’t have dream, how’re gonna have a dream come true?” Simple with impeccable logic. Another uplifting one is “Failure is not the falling down, it’s the not getting back up” attributed to various people including Actress Mary Pickford. When teaching, I try to be mindful of Winston Churchill’s statement, “I love learning, but hate being taught!”

15. If you could resolve one of the great challenges we are faced with now, which problem would you solve and what would the outcome of the solution look like?

My goodness, we have plenty of challenges, don’t we? Population growth seems to be moderating as people become more wealthy, educated, protected, and supported. Although, walking the streets of Shanghai, Mumbai, or New York will give a very different sense than driving the roadways of West Texas or the Canadian Prairies! Hopefully, prosperity can continue to outpace population. Perhaps, the follow-on challenge is psychological. With some 7.6 billion people on Earth, even a one-in-a-million problem has 7,600 cases! Different regions have come up with answers on how and why to live. Can we examine and filter them? Can we integrate science, spirituality, and psychology? Something like a testable and happy unified field theory of existence. It’s essential that we continue to learn how to get along with each other – all the way from traffic courtesy to war avoidance.

On the environmental front, we’re learning so much more about how our surroundings work, the roles of plants and animals, and how we interact with them. All life uses energy and creates waste. So, the question is how do we advance, enjoy our time here, and not create too much of a mess?

Unfortunately, I must also say, probably like many of us living in big cities, I see poverty and homelessness every day. So, how do we proceed? I believe that the answers lie in science, education, vibrant economies, and compassionate cultures.

Then how would the outcome look? Maybe something like Houston’s Hermann Park on a sunny Memorial Day weekend! Lots of fountains, nearby museums, open green spaces close to medical and business centers, with a zoo, active restaurants, and a golf course – a place of vibrant diversity with good governance and developed people pursuing their happiness.

- Azie Sophia Aziz, from the September 2018 issue of GSH Journal, the magazine of Geophysical Society Houston