First-Hand:The Only Woman in the Room

Submitted by Eve Sprunt

In the 1960s, when I was in high school, new laws and court cases in the United States were just starting to crack open access to traditionally male occupations to women. As a teenager, I didn’t appreciate how lucky I was not to have been born earlier. I also didn’t appreciate how many barriers to women remained. Feminists are not born. They are made by life’s experiences.

High School

My mother believed that boys should be scientists or engineers because her older brother was a mechanical engineer and her younger brother was a physics professor at Berkeley. She encouraged me to be a writer or an artist like herself. My father was an attorney, but I never contemplated that, because he didn’t seem to enjoy his work. Of the five children in my family, only my younger brother and I finished college and I was the only technical one. No one pushed me to take chemistry, physics and calculus, I just did. I’m not sure whether it was that I enjoyed math and science or it was a form of rebellion, because girls generally didn’t. I was constantly trying to prove to my mother that I was smart, when she insisted I was just hard working. MIT was at the top of my list of colleges because my mother had dreamed that my older brother would go there and become an engineer. About the time I was admitted to MIT under the early action plan, my older brother dropped out of his freshman year at Colorado State College when there was sufficient snow for skiing. He tried to convince me to join him in his druggie, ski bum existence, but the idea was repulsive. I was focused on going to MIT.

MIT

In high school I was accustomed to being one of only a very few girls in my calculus and physics classes, but MIT was a whole new experience. When I started at MIT, the ratio of men to women was 20:1. My freshman year, women were required to either live at home or in the only women’s dorm. Ladies’ bathrooms were very scarce, the list the women compiled of all of those critical facilities fit easily on one side of a typewritten page, which was shared with the new arrivals. In hindsight, MIT was great preparation for entering a male-dominated industry. I got accustomed to being the only woman in the room. When I arrived at MIT, I thought I wanted to be a math major. A class on set theory cured me of that. Next, I contemplated physics and was planning to declare that as my major. However, the guy I was dating spring of my freshman year was determined to be a geologist and he pointed out that in geophysics I would take almost the same courses as in physics, but would not have a thesis requirement. Remembering how much I had enjoyed my ninth grade year of earth sciences, I made an appointment to speak with a geophysics professor, who convinced me to declare geophysics as my major. I was very interested in research and asked that geophysics professor if I could do a research project for academic credit under him. He assigned me to work with a research associate, who could barely speak English. I worked for the research associate throughout my sophomore year and when the summer came, the professor recommended that I continue working on the research project for pay rather than go to geology summer camp. At the end of the summer, the research associate asked me if I had gotten anything out of the experience. When he and the professor published a paper based on the data that I had gathered and interpreted, they didn’t even bother to acknowledge me. In contrast, a male contemporary (who used to copy my homework, even when it was wrong) went to work for the same professor on a research project for pay and got to co-author the paper.

The next year, my third year at MIT, I approached another professor, Prof. William F. Brace, about working with him. I got to work directly with Prof. Brace, on a project that subsequently became my master’s thesis. The first professor was a seismologist and Prof. Brace was in rock mechanics. The difference in attitude between these two faculty members about educating women was why despite my initial interest in seismology, I ended up as an experimental petrophysicist. At the beginning of my third year at MIT, I realized that I had amassed sufficient credits to graduate in three years. However, I didn’t want to leave MIT yet, so I arranged to graduate after three years and continue at MIT working on a master’s degree. Prof. Brace, wanted me to stay at MIT for the summer to work on my master’s thesis, but another professor, Gene Simmons, a Texan, suggested that I take a summer job in an oil company research lab. Prof. Simmons went beyond just a suggestion and personally referred me to a friend of his, who was an executive with Shell. Prior to the summer job in Houston, I intended to pursue a career as a faculty member at a university. The summer job experience revealed an alternative that was very attractive. I decided that after I received my Ph.D., I wanted to work in an oil company research lab.

Prof. Brace discouraged me from taking the summer job with Shell. He warned me that if I spent the summer elsewhere, I might not finish my master’s thesis by the following June. Despite Prof. Brace’s strong recommendation that I spend the summer working on my thesis, I was sure that I could get it done between September and May. I managed to do so despite taking off several weeks in January to elope and get married. My master’s thesis research led to three publications. The first paper, which was published under my maiden name included as one of the co-authors 2004 SPE President, Kate Baker (then Kate Hadley), who was one year ahead of me at MIT. Who would have predicted that two of the first three female SPE presidents would have come from earth sciences at MIT?

When MIT agreed to let me stay for a master’s, I was told that I would have to go elsewhere for my doctorate. Prof. Brace suggested that I go to Stanford to work with Prof. Amos Nur. Come the following spring, I had an NSF Fellowship and my choice of Cal Tech, Stanford or MIT. My husband talked me out of Cal Tech, because he had decided against continuing for a doctorate in sedimentology there. When Prof. Brace told me that if I didn’t like Stanford, I could be back at MIT in six months, I felt I had nothing to lose in going to Stanford. I was surprised to find the following fall that MIT had assumed that I had not left and was billing me for tuition!

Stanford

When I went to Stanford, it never occurred to me to ask how many women had received a Ph.D. from that department. There were about four other female students in the Geophysics Department at Stanford when I arrived. My study partner for the Ph.D. qualifying exam, was a woman who had been in the department for a couple of years. It was my first time since high school to have a female study partner and I learned a lot from her, because she was taking the qualifying exam for the second time. I was shocked and saddened when I heard that I had passed and she was being flunked out of the Ph.D. program after failing the qualifying exam twice.

Prior to my arrival at Stanford, I never interacted with petroleum engineers. At Stanford, both Geophysics and Petroleum Engineering were part of the School of Earth Science that also then included Geology and Applied Earth Sciences. My thesis was under Prof. Amos Nur in the Geophysics Department, but I worked with professors in all of the other departments and learned not to pay much attention to artificial boundaries between disciplines.

At Stanford I don’t remember encountering any prejudice against women. We went out into the field with the guys and were expected to deal with the same living conditions. Even some of the very old faculty members provided strong encouragement. One of the biggest surprises was a professor of mining engineering in the Applied Earth Sciences Department, Prof. (and Colonel) Welton J. Crook. Most of the other students were afraid of him, because he was almost ninety, very frail, and walked with two canes. Much to my surprise he was a great supporter of women. His beloved wife, who died young, had been a mining engineer. He was an Australian and ended up at Stanford, because Jane Stanford was his godmother. Prof. Crook would regale me with amazing stories of the outback in his youth.

When I was having a very perplexing leak in my experimental apparatus that only occurred at high temperature, the machinist suggested that I ask Prof. Crook for assistance. Prof. Crook’s microscopic examination of the suspect part revealed a subtle corrosion problem. Not only did he definitively identify the problem, but Prof. Crook recommended which steel alloy to use instead. His assistance led to a quick and easy fix of a problem that threatened to derail my experimental program.

One of the things I learned from Prof. Crook was that you couldn’t predict who would be prejudiced against women based on demographics and also who could be a source of valuable information. Over and over again throughout my career, I discovered lifelong friends, strong champions and allies from the most unexpected backgrounds and at all stages of life.

I’m not sure when I realized that I was the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in Geophysics from Stanford. Except for my study partner for the qualifying exam, I don’t know why the women who preceded me either didn’t get their doctorates or took longer than I did. After I passed the last hurdle, the defense of my thesis, I was so relieved that I just stood in the hall and cried. The people who saw me thought that I had flunked.


Motherhood

I had gotten married at the age of 21 while I was working on my master’s thesis at MIT, but I didn’t think that I could handle a baby, while I was a student. As I was nearing completion of my Ph.D. thesis, I asked about continuing at Stanford, because my husband needed about two years more to complete his business and law school degrees. I was offered the choice of being a research associate or a post-doc. I chose research associate, because the maternity benefits were better. I was lucky on my first attempt. My first child, a son, was born nine months after I defended my Ph.D. thesis when I was 26.

As the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in Geophysics from Stanford, I had no female role models. I never asked how much maternity leave I could take. When my son, Alex, was 13 days old, I brought him into work in a baby pack and set up a place in my portion of the office for him to sleep. I strung up a sheet to provide privacy while I was nursing.

My office was in the sub-basement, close to the machine shop. The machinist, Peter Gordon, was a good friend of mine, who had taught me how to use a lathe, milling machine and drill press and how to plumb high pressure systems. When Alex became old enough to pay attention to the world around him, Peter would turn on the lathe so that Alex could watch it spin. Years later when Alex was getting his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from MIT, there was a reception for the graduating students in the MIT machine shop. I shared with the machinists the story about Alex as an infant watching the lathe spin. They immediately decided it was “imprinting.” Alex had to put up with the machinists’ teasing about the imprinting for years, because he stayed at MIT to earn his master’s and Ph.D. degrees in mechanical engineering.

One time, Prof. Amos Nur had to go out of town on short notice and asked me to give a lecture to a class. I wasn’t able to get a baby sitter, so I put Alex in a backpack hoping that he would stay asleep. Unfortunately, Alex woke up in the middle of the lecture. It was extremely distracting for me trying to give a lecture with Alex awake in the backpack and playing with my hair.

Alex was the “geophysics baby.” About nine months after my Alex was born, Christine and Michael Economides, who were both graduate students in Petroleum Engineering at Stanford had their son. The Economides also named their son Alex and he became the “petroleum engineering baby.” (Just as I was the first woman to get a Ph.D. in Geophysics from Stanford, Christine Ehlig-Economides was the first woman to get a Ph.D. in Petroleum Engineering from Stanford a few years later.) The Economides would bring their son to campus in a baby carriage, while I always carried my Alex in a pack.

When my Alex was about six months old, I arranged for him to go to a babysitter. I was surprised when the librarians and others complained that they rarely got to see him anymore. I had always been terrified that Alex would make noise in the library and we would be ejected.

Interviewing for Oil Industry Positions

Although at Stanford, there were only a few other female graduate students, I didn’t feel that there was prejudice against women. However, discrimination was a factor in the interactions with the oil company recruiters, who came to campus. During one recruiting event I met one of the other female students, who was in tears, because a recruiter had asked her, “What’s a nice girl like you doing in geophysics?” After that, I always wondered why I was never asked that question. The illegal question the oil industry recruiters always asked me was about my intent to have children. Despite the illegal questions, after my first summer job at an oil company research lab, I envisioned my future career as being in the oil industry. Prior to that summer job, I had intended to be a professor. When I finished my Ph.D., I received inquiries from Prof. Brace at MIT about whether I would be interested in a position at MIT. I declined, because I thought that a job in industry would be more compatible with my plans to have children. I was aware of the seven year time frame to earn tenure and in the 1970’s, I saw that schedule as incompatible with my biological clock if I wanted to have children. While I was working as a research associate at Stanford and my husband was still in his degree programs, we proceeded with our plan to find two good jobs in the same city. Since I was more specialized, I interviewed well ahead of our target start date. The idea was that once I picked a location, he would limit his job search to that city. Young and unafraid, I scheduled my first post-maternity, on-campus interview at a time when I thought my infant son would be asleep. I walked into the interview wearing my son in a front baby-pack and announced, “This is the question you are not supposed to ask.” The interviewer, Ed Witterholt, who was then with Cities Services, countered by asking the entire family for an on-site interview in Tulsa, Oklahoma with baby-sitting provided. With no other standard for comparison, I assumed that was the usual practice. We had no relatives near Stanford who could babysit for us, so I took my son along on all of the trips for on-site interviews and asked to have childcare arranged. Based on what I subsequently learned about oil companies, I’m amazed that the companies complied with my request and that I received job offers afterwards. I had my choice of six job offers in oil industry research labs with 2 in Dallas, 2 in Tulsa, 1 in Houston and 1 in Connecticut. At that time, Houston was not the dominant oil center in the United States. After I picked Mobil Research and Development in Dallas and obtained agreement that the position would be held for me, my husband limited his job search to Dallas. I thought the sky was the limit.

There were warning signs, but in my youthful ignorance, I did not see them. When after negotiating a slightly better deal, I accepted the position with Mobil in Dallas, the hiring manager blurted out, “And, we are so glad you are a woman.” I took that as positive, whereas I really should have seen it as a warning. The oil companies were finally hiring women, but there were still many barriers. I think I was the third female Ph.D. that Mobil hired and the first, who was a mother. Before long, I was hearing things like, “We can’t have a younger woman supervising an older man.” Instead of being given positions that included supervisory responsibility over people, they created an activity leader position, so that I managed projects instead of people. Not having the opportunity to acquire personnel management experience later became a career limitation.

Mobil Research and Development

When I interviewed with Mobil, I was asked if I wanted to be in Exploration or Production. As a geophysicist, I said Exploration and was offered a position in the Geophysics Group. However, before I arrived, they decided that geophysicists knew nothing about lab experiments, so I should go into the Production Mechanics Group. Little did I realize that I was on a slippery slope to impersonating a petroleum engineer.

I knew I wanted to have a second child, but I wanted to work for a full year for Mobil, before getting pregnant again. By the end of the year, I had become more aware of the former and ongoing barriers to women. One of the librarians shared that each of the three times she had given birth, she had to quit her job and was subsequently rehired. Having a second child turned out to be much more difficult than the first. I had at least two miscarriages and probably three. Knowing more about the oil company environment, I worked hard to conceal the pregnancies and miscarriages dragging myself back to work immediately after being released from overnight stays in the hospital.

I was working in hydraulic fracturing research and almost three months pregnant when a group of us flew to Nevada to visit the Nevada Test Site, where hydraulic fracturing was being done in one of the tunnels used for underground nuclear tests. After hydraulic fracturing, the area was “mined-back” to map the actual fracture pattern. We weren’t given radiation badges, so I didn’t think about possible exposure to radiation. After the mine tour, our hosts decided to treat us to an extensive tour of the Nevada Test Site including the areas where the effects of nuclear bombs on different types of construction were studied and the Sedan Crater where a nuclear device was used for excavation. We were standing on the rim of the Sedan Crater in front of a sign describing the creation of the crater and the level of lingering radiation when I realized that area still had a high level of radiation. From that point on, the tour seemed to be never ending. I felt as if I were covered in radioactive dust and jeopardizing my unborn child. I was anxious to get back to my hotel room and scrub myself clean of the dust. By the following week, I panicked that the visit to the Nevada Test Site was prompting another miscarriage. I confessed to my boss that I was pregnant, but swore him to secrecy.

Fortunately, I did not miscarry and before my pregnancy became obvious, plans were made for a field trip to the Piceance Basin in Colorado the following spring. I was about seven months pregnant by the time of the field trip. After we returned from the field trip, I learned that the geologist who led the trip had made special preparations on my behalf. The geologist, who was around sixty, was a father of seven and longtime Boy Scout leader. Anticipating that he might have to deliver a baby in the field, he purchased a brand new, tiny Swiss Army knife to cut the umbilical cord and dental floss to tie off the cord. He may have been disappointed that he didn’t get the opportunity.

We had gone to the Piceance Creek Basin to check out the natural fractures. I had discovered that despite the then prevailing belief that hydraulic fracturing was of no benefit in naturally fractured formations that the most successful hydraulic fracture treatments in Mobil’s Piceance Creek Field were in the most intensely naturally fractured wells. At my behest we had retrieved all of the cores from the field and documented the multiple generations of fractures. The core examinations and a reinterpretations of old seismic data and air photos supported my assertion about the benefits of hydraulically fracturing naturally fractured formations. My work was documented internally, but never published. We did however share the observations with the people running the DOE-Multi Well Experiment and I subsequently published a paper on the work in those wells with Janet Pitman of the USGS.

Despite having been working for an oil company for a couple of years, I still hadn’t been to a rig site. After the birth of my daughter, I was invited to go to the DOE-Multi Well site with a Mobil logging crew. Not surprisingly, the logging run was postponed, so that I needed to stay overnight at the well site. I borrowed a blanket from one of the Sandia scientists, and slept on a couch in the trailer. Photos of me asleep ended up on Sandia and Mobil bulletin boards, but I don’t think I ever got a copy.

About five years into my career with Mobil when I was leading core analysis research, a male colleague told me that I was of less value to the company than he was, because as a woman, I could not go to Saudi Arabia. I immediately proposed a research project for Saudi Aramco, the Saudi Arabian company that had assumed control for running the giant oil fields in Saudi Arabia from the four major oil companies, Chevron, Exxon, Mobil and Texaco that had run Aramco and which at that time were continuing to provide technical support. Getting a visa for a woman to travel to Saudi Arabia without her husband is difficult, but about a year after being told by my colleague that I could not go to Saudi Arabia, I did, and I returned several times.

Paying It Forward

With the passage of the years, I have come to see women’s progress toward equality as a multi-generational effort. My generation of women was able to get hired, but we had to prove that women added value in the workplace and could be effective in the field and around the world. The barriers have slowly been pushed back, but women are still under-represented in higher level positions. The best way I see to honor and thank those who opened doors for me is to help eliminate the barriers that still block women’s progress.