GEO ExPro

The Chief Geophysicist

Phil Fontana is the Chief Geophysicist for seismic company Polarcus. He tells us about the career path which led to this role and what it entails – and why geophysics still excites him.
This article appeared in Vol. 11, No. 6 - 2015

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Gain an understanding of the three facets of geophysics: acquisition, processing and interpretation, and the ways in which they interact and affect each other.

My undergraduate degree, at the University of Connecticut, was in geology, but I took a geophysics course in the final year and really enjoyed it, so I decided to do my Masters in the subject. I think what attracted me to the discipline is the mix of multiple sciences involved: physics, geology, technology – they are all needed, and it is very satisfying to see how they work together.

Influencing Technology 

I learnt my craft after I left college by working as a geophysicist in a small geotechnical survey company in the US, where I had to do everything. I set up the equipment, ran it all, sorted out any problems and interpreted the results: a great learning experience! 

I then moved on to the Applied Marine Technology Group at Western Geophysical, a much larger company, where I was working in research, which was very interesting. The geophysicists at Western actually decided what systems were needed and worked closely with the engineers in the group to make and test the prototypes, until we were happy with them, then they could be manufactured and supplied to the field crews. Back then the geophysicists had significant influence on the development of technology, with manufacturing virtually driven by what the geophysicists suggested. I think that is less true now, as many of the larger R&D facilities have been broken up. 

After working in the research team I moved into management, with spells living in London and Houston. When Western merged with Geco I became the Chief Geophysicist for North and South America. However, I really prefer working in smaller companies where I feel more ‘hands on’, so in 2001 I joined Veritas, now part of CGG. 

Finally, in late 2008 I was asked if I would like to be part of the newly formed Polarcus. The opportunity to be in at the start-up of a new seismic company was very attractive, so I jumped at it, and have now been Chief Geophysicist for the company for six years. I am based in Dubai, which is a fascinating place to live. After all, it is probably the most modern city on the planet, so there is always something interesting to see or do.

Responsibilities 

In an acquisition company like Polarcus many of the main responsibilities of the Chief Geophysicist revolve around developing and promoting the technical capabilities of the company. I need to assess how we use equipment both for operational efficiency and to ensure optimum geophysical quality. I also market our technical ideas and equipment internally to my colleagues and externally to our customers. 

Talking and marketing to potential clients is an important aspect of my job. I need to be able to project the company’s technical competence to our client community, to let them know that not only can we undertake each project successfully, but we can do it better and more innovatively than our competitors. 

It has been a wonderful experience helping to build up a company like Polarcus from scratch. I was there when we built our first ship – in fact, I was marketing our services before she was even launched. I felt I was right there in the centre of the fray and it was so exciting. 

And after all these years in the business, geophysics is still not boring, because there is always so much yet to learn. I continue to get involved with the subject, primarily as a result of the very innovative team I have around me in Polarcus, who are constantly coming up with new ideas and fresh ways of attacking problems and expanding our services and products. And I am also strongly involved in mentoring the next generation of geophysicists and managers so they will be well equipped to take over my roles in the future, and those of my managerial colleagues.

What Attributes are Needed? 

What makes a good geophysicist, particularly one who aims for higher management level in a company? I was advised early on in my career to be a generalist and not to specialise too much or too soon – very good advice. You need a good general grounding in both technology and the sciences, and you must gain an understanding of the three facets of geophysics: acquisition, processing and interpretation, and the ways in which they interact and affect each other. 

  • Phil Fontana is the Chief Geophysicist for seismic company Polarcus.

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