Rock on – careers in geology

Helen Wickens, 28, is a production geologist at Shell, based in Aberdeen. She talked to us about her study of geology, enthusiasm for volcanoes and thoughts on this week’s Big Bang science fair.

What did you study at university?

I did a geology degree at the University of Edinburgh and then a Masters in tectonics at Royal Holloway, University of London. Tectonics is the study of the plates on the earth’s surface – when those plates move together they cause earthquakes and volcanoes. They float on what’s called the mantle, and have implications for mountain chains, oceans and island arcs.

I remember sitting in a geography lessonwhen I was 12 and being told about all this thinking, this is brilliant! We live in a world and a universe where so much has happened before we even existed.

I wasn’t really sure how I was going to fund the Masters when I applied – I was going to work that out later! – but then Shell said they wanted to sponsor me and I said, “Yes please!” I didn’t know much about Shell at the point but as part of my sponsorship I went and did a three-month internship at Aberdeen and during that time I learnt a lot about the company and what it was like to work there.

What does your job involve?

It’s my job to get hold of organic compounds called hydrocarbons, which are then processed and used in electricity and other fuels. They provide energy for the population, and with the increasing population we need as much energy as we can get.

My days are quite varied. I might be working on seismic data, health and safety or personal communications skills, or travelling somewhere for training or a business meeting – it very much depends on what’s going on at the time.

Have you got any exciting projects coming up?

I’m going on a rig site in the Netherlands at the beginning of next year for five months, having been off-shore in Norway for a couple of weeks already. I had to do my off-shore training, which involved being upside-down in a helicopter about 10 times, holding my breath and using something called a re-breather. The situations you end up in can be quite interesting!

At Shell you have the opportunity to change job or location every four years – a lot of people I know have worked in places such as Brunei, Malaysia, Oman, Nigeria, Netherlands, Norway and the United States. You work on your technical skills, personal skills, communication skills and management skills, which helps you with all aspects of your development. That means you get a good grounding and can go on to do a lot of different things; it’s helped me to learn a great deal about myself, my strengths and weaknesses.

What will you be doing at the Big Bang?

I’ll be on the Shell stand, hopefully speaking to budding young scientists about what their aspirations are as well as telling them about what I do and how my life has gone since I discovered my enthusiasm for science. I’ll also be doing some workshops with the students, telling them a bit more about what Shell does.

How will you win over sceptical students?

I will tell them that everything in the world can be related to science because everything is made of energy and matter. Science can be seen as a difficult subject; however, if you find something hard but enjoy it you should continue to work at it and then hopefully, with time, it will become that much easier. I saw people at the beginning of university finding geology very difficult, and then two years down the line they are really good geologists. You should go for whatever you are passionate about.

To find out more about The Big Bang, visit - the first day of the fair is tomorrow, Wednesday 4 March