Cover story: Breaking the glass ceiling

Dr Abeer Al-Olayan, a petroleum scientist working for Saudi Aramco, is striving through research and innovation, to resolve the complex upstream issues faced by the energy giant.

Al-Olayan was chosen to be part of the MIT fellowship programme in 2015. She spent about 18 months  at MIT, both studying and teaching.
Al-Olayan was chosen to be part of the MIT fellowship programme in 2015. She spent about 18 months at MIT, both studying and teaching.

The upstream segment of the oil and gas industry, particularly in this region, faces a variety of challenges from factors such as geology, climate, and operational methods. While issues related to the exploration of fossil fuel reserves form half of the challenge, complex operational issues related to aspects such as drilling, reservoir stimulation, and enhanced oil recovery (EOR) make up the other half. Research is an integral part of any development process and is necessary for advancements to be made, especially for the oil and gas industry.

However, research is valuable only when the exercise does not lose sight of its purpose, and needs to be ‘a means to an end’, with a time-bound approach. “When you are working for the world’s largest oil company, you need to work towards making a business impact by deploying your research on the field, based on the success of your work,” Dr Abeer Al-Olayan, tells Oil & Gas Middle East during an exclusive interview in Abu Dhabi.

Al-Olayan is a petroleum scientist, part of the drilling technology team at Saudi Aramco’s Exploration and Petroleum Engineering Centre’s Advanced Research Center (EXPEC ARC). The institute conducts advanced technical research and development (R&D) to resolve the particular issues faced in upstream operations.

Being a female Saudi scientist is in itself an achievement, and Al-Olayan’s inspiring story is one of success attained through determination and perseverance – a fact that has won her several accolades and honours, including the title of ‘Oil & Gas Woman of the Year’ at the O&GME and R&PME Awards 2017. 

Born in the town of Al-Qassim in central Saudi Arabia, Al-Olayan has spent most of her life in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, and grew up in Al-Khafji, close to the border with Kuwait – home to a key oil and gas base in Saudi Arabia, where her father worked. Her family moved to Dammam in the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm in 1990, and she has been based there ever since.

In 2011, impressed by her credentials and prospects, Saudi Aramco – on which she had been researching for her PhD degree, and whose officials she had been regularly interacting with at chemistry-related conferences and events – offered her a job.

“It was a difficult decision for me to leave academia (after having taught at Dammam University for 12 years) and join the oil and gas industry. It was a new world for me, where I had to learn a lot and start from scratch. But it was the best decision I have ever made and it helped me find, discover and develop myself, and see tangible results for my work. I started to see and learn how Aramco operates, how the oil industry works. I began to think how to be unique and how to contribute to Saudi Aramco’s development,” Al-Olayan says.

Six years ago, when she joined Aramco’s EXPEC ARC, she was the only female scientist with a PhD degree, as most of the professionals at the Center are petroleum or chemical or mechanical engineers. “There are very few females who worked in Aramco’s EXPEC ARC at that time, and (the ones that were there worked) mostly in the HR and admin departments, but were not involved in research work. If there were female professionals on the ground, they would be expatriates, so I was also the first Saudi female who took her technologies to the field. I started to see what I needed to do to make the organisation believe in me,” Al-Olayan recounts.

A passion for invention

Al-Olayan realised working at EXPEC ARC that most of the chemicals that are used by Saudi Aramco in operations were being sourced externally from services companies and others that were mainly based out of the kingdom. She, therefore, dedicated herself to understanding what the real challenges were, how those could be resolved, and how she could develop those chemicals for Aramco in Aramco’s facilities, by localising them and relying on Saudi companies.

Her ‘eureka’ moment came in 2013, when she was able to develop something valuable for Aramco. Speaking about the success she achieved in her very first project for Aramco, Al-Olayan delightedly narrates: “In 2013, I started working on a polymer that could resolve a major challenge for Saudi Aramco, which is the loss of circulation while drilling. This material was a simple one, but played a very big function, especially since the raw material for this chemical was available locally in the kingdom and it could replace many materials which we were importing. So, we import maybe hundreds of materials which don’t work effectively, and even if it were to be working effectively, it will be expensive. So the solution for the lost circulation while drilling I developed was less expensive, it was available locally, and most importantly it was 100% made in Saudi Arabia. This polymer product was recognised by Saudi Aramco, by the company assigning it a trade name.”

Al-Olayan fondly recalls an occasion where the Saudi Energy Minister His Excellency Khalid Al-Falih, at one of Aramco’s board meetings, asked if she had developed the polymer product all by herself, to which she said “yes”, leading the minister to respond by saying, “I am very proud of you!”

Following the success of her polymer experiment, Al-Olayan was asked to lead a campaign named ‘chemical development initiative’, which she started directing in 2013. There were three key targets of this initiative: to utilise Saudi natural resources to develop chemicals for Aramco, localising the supply chain, and innovate to develop smart materials to help operations. “It was a tough project indeed, but my colleagues and I succeeded,” she claims.

Around that time, Al-Falih initiated a fellowship programme in association with the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in America, spanning five years, aimed at developing Saudi women scientists. Every year, about ten Saudi ladies with PhD degrees are nominated to conduct further research at MIT, and Al-Olayan was chosen for the fellowship in 2015. “I spent about 18 months at MIT. It was a very fruitful experience. Bright minds and highly qualified professors surrounded me. I started to think about bringing something new to Aramco from what I was learning there,” she states.

She elaborates: “I succeeded in developing a material called ‘Shear Thickening Material or Fluid (STM/F)’. This material is a liquid and it will transform into gel form when it is exposed to high shear or stress. It will convert back into liquid form when conditions are normal. This is very important when it comes to our operations. We have different application for this type of material and, again, it is a smart solution. We are developing different materials of this kind, and work is in progress with MIT.”

After the success in MIT, Al-Olayan was invited by the institute to teach a course on oil and gas. She accepted the offer and designed a course for MIT which she named ‘The Power of Science in Overcoming Challenges in the Oil and Gas Industry’. “It was a very enriching and satisfying experience for me, as a female scientist from Saudi Aramco, to achieve,” she says.

As further evidence of the spirit of innovation that guides her, even while she was in the US, she didn’t restrict herself to just the fellowship schedule at MIT, but indulged in some research activity for the Boston Aramco Centre, related to EOR. “I developed a new technology combining ultrasound with chemicals and gas. We did the experimental work and we were quite successful; we are now in the process of filing the patent for that innovation,” she reveals.

She also engaged in some research work at Aramco’s Houston research centre, during her stint in America, something that she is still working on, as part of a collaboration between Aramco’s Dhahran and Houston centres.

Life as a female scientist in KSA

Upon her return to Saudi Arabia, after the conclusion of the MIT fellowship scheme and the other research activities in the States, Al-Olayan is continuing her efforts in developing smart materials for Aramco. She was specialised in analytical chemistry during her tenure at Dammam University, but expanded her horizons to concentrate on organic chemistry when she joined Aramco, as she is now working with polymers and surfactants. “We also try to develop materials based on nano silica, because silica is the basic component in sand, and we have lots of sand in the kingdom.” Her sterling work in chemical innovations has earned her 10 US patents so far.

The biggest challenge in upstream operations worldwide is drilling, Al-Olayan feels. “Hundreds of chemicals and expensive tools are used in drilling. After that comes production and EOR.” Unconventional upstream operations are also challenging, she opines, adding that the polymer she has developed could be applicable to the unconventional segment as well. “This will be my next step – to improve the material to make it applicable for polymer.”

The accomplished scientist says her research could be applicable to different upstream operations, primarily onshore, and visits Aramco’s onshore oilfields during the trial phases of her research projects. Describing the kind of work she does at EXPEC ARC, she says: “We need to take the material (developed in the laboratory) to the field to test it. It is not necessary that the experiment will be successful in the first instance. When me and my team develop a chemical, and my colleagues from other departments – like drilling and reservoir management – ask me to meet a different requirement, all it requires is a bit of change in the chemistry. If you are working with material provided by a different company, and it doesn’t work, it is not easy to understand where the problem lies.

“When it’s your material, you can play around with it. It is very inspiring when your colleagues ask you “Abeer, we want a certain material to be stable for this temperature.” I try to change the chemical composition of the material by adding or removing certain chemicals and components to make it work and meet their needs.”

Al-Olayan explains that the implementation of her work at the laboratory on the field happens in different stages. “The first stage is about development. The second stage is to find a party that will supply us with the raw material and facilities needed to develop the product, for which need to look at local companies in Saudi Arabia. We need to do this to align with Saudi Vision 2030, localising the supply of resources.”

No two days are similar for Al-Olayan, as the work she does for the global energy behemoth isn’t a regular job. She opens up about her daily routine saying, “I like my work and I like my days. In our daily routine we have to interact with other teams and departments like drilling, unconventional, and the like. At EXPEC ARC, sometimes you do a presentation, at times you conduct a meeting, you attend courses, conferences and perform assignments. It is a really rich career, one that makes me feel lucky and happy. Sometimes, the days become very quiet because you spend it writing a paper or a patent, sitting at the lab. It sometimes takes up to a month to get to the bottom of one research idea. So, it requires patience.”

“I have a lot to do in life: I work for Aramco, I participate and manage events and conferences, and I work on publishing papers. Besides that, I take care of my kids (a daughter and two sons). I try to manage my time. I work as per a schedule and try to maintain that balance between personal and professional life. Even if I have to go to the office to work during the weekends, I drop them off at the Aramco facilities for them to enjoy. I try to make everyone happy.”

The management at EXPEC ARC, specifically, Al-Olayan says, believes in the nurturing of women, especially in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) branch. The encouragement is bearing fruit with the number of females in STEM within Saudi Aramco doubling in the last 10 years, and the ratio of women working for Aramco in general doubling as well, according to her. 

Today, Aramco has 80 women in senior leadership positions, and has sponsored more than 270 young Saudi females globally this year, in pursuit of STEM at local and international universities. Moreover, there are specific education programmes that Aramco runs, in which about 25% of the scholarships are reserved for female staff. “This really is promising progress. I’m sure we will see more positive results in the future,” Al-Olayan hopes.

In a message to her fellow Saudi women compatriots, Al-Olayan says: “I always feel proud to be an Aramco employee, a female and a Saudi national. I always see the respect I get. Even the people at MIT know a lot about Aramco, even if they don’t know much about the oil and gas industry. Aramco is the heart of Saudi Arabia. It gives me pride when I tell people that I 100% made in Saudi Arabia, since I earned all my degrees from local institutions, and attained this professional height. I encourage other women to come forward and join the research centre at Saudi Aramco, because there is a lot of developmental work that they can be a part of.”

The ethos of equality that Aramco upholds is there for everyone to see, Al-Olayan believes, a case in point being the fact that “we have to deploy our technologies in Aramco’s fields (by ourselves)”. In her case, she says “I work side-by-side with the men on-site to witness the results. It’s not easy, but it’s possible. I have not tried spending an entire day on the field. But I do want to try that as well. We (women) can do everything!”  


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