How can we know what we don't know? The future of energy remains unseen, but its implications will be long-lasting. Our nation, and others alike, need highly-motivated leaders to answer the tough energy questions today before the effects become too overwhelming for tomorrow. This is where ExxonMobil engineer, Lindsey Gulden, steps in. Lindsey is an experienced Earth modeler who breaks down solutions for the petroleum industry. From studying the growth of coral reefs in different climates to other meaty earth-science problems, she pinpoints solutions to some of the planet's most difficult questions.
Growing up in Southern Indiana, Lindsey always excelled in school. She later went on to attend Harvard University, entering as a pre-med biology student. But once there, she quickly realized that this major was not the right fit for her. Finding the sight of blood rather unappealing, Lindsey reasoned that Computer Science would be a better pursuit, assisting in any scientific effort. Now, working for Oil & Gas Giant, Exxonmobil, she helps people make the best decisions possible when facing a great deal of uncertainty. Though she would never admit it herself, Lindsey embodies success in many regards and has somehow remained fantastically humble. She holds a unique take on what it truly means to be "successful", how today's nation views hard work and the future of energy for this country. Read on to learn more of Lindsey's refreshing perspective on what should matter to us today:
1. Your story is quite different than most. You grew up in Midwest farm-country and went on to attend Harvard. Could you tell us how this all came about?
My father and mother both saw education as a gateway to opportunity, and they highlighted its importance as a way to give yourself choices in life and, secondarily, as a way to be engaged with the world. They weren’t the sort of parents who said ‘You have to go to an Ivy league school’; their expectation was focused on the present, they made it clear that it was important for me to try hard in whatever it was I was doing at the moment. I did try hard, and I always ‘liked’ school--it was fun for me.
As a consequence, I did well academically. I also liked to do all sorts of extracurriculars, which evidently made me a good candidate for liberal arts colleges. I applied to Harvard (and several other ‘big name’ schools) on the premise that one can’t be admitted if she doesn’t apply. As I recall, my dad bet me $5 that I would get in. I got in. Then it seemed to me to be too good of an opportunity to pass up. (Although, that said, one of my strongest memories of my father’s expression of love for me as a person occurred on the day before my parents left me in Cambridge at the start of my freshman year. We were walking along the Charles River, and he said, “Lindsey, I’m happy you got in to Harvard, and I think this will likely be a good experience; but I want you to know that if this doesn’t work out, you can come home and go to a school near home, and I’ll never think any less of you.”)
4. Tell us about your current job working for ExxonMobil:
I am a researcher in the Computational Sciences Function at ExxonMobil’s Upstream Research Company (URC). URC is tasked with doing applied research that supports the ‘upstream’ portion of the company, which comprises exploration (the people who find the oil); development (the people who take found resources and turn them into a producing field); and production (the people who manage producing fields as efficiently as possible); I am pretty much a problem solver who uses lots of applied math to answer questions. I often work on uncertainty quantification (e.g., How much confidence can we have in this model prediction? How do we know that this model is giving us realistic error bars on a prediction?); I also tend to employ statistical learning algorithms that allow us to better learn from and analyze large and diverse datasets.
3. Your parents were known to be outstanding people with great values. How did they have an influence on your life?
They would blush to see that written; I’m pretty sure they thought of themselves as regular people. As parents are for most people, my parents were the single-most influential force in my life. I am lucky, because that most-influential force was, in my case, a force for good. In addition to giving me and my brother a stable, loving home, my parents imbued me with a belief in my own power to change my situation. They taught me to think for myself.
My mother was perhaps the most persevering person I’ve ever known. If she set her mind to something, it was as good as done; I hope that I’ve adopted that trait as my own (although she set a high bar). She also helped me to internalize the belief that life is not fair (on the balance, I’ve had a lot more good luck than bad, but knowing life is not fair has helped me deal with the spates of bad luck that I’ve been dealt.)
My father, in particular, was a man with an egalitarian world view: he sincerely believed that no person is any better or worth any more than another. Two of my ideas about the world result from that worldview: (1) all people, no matter their station, merit my fair, kind, equal treatment and respect; and, perhaps the less-obvious corollary, (2) I deserve kind, fair, equal treatment from anyone, no matter their station. Of course, neither of them were near perfect; both had their blinds spots. In some cases, I can see that I share their flaws (e.g., I’m a bit reclusive and reticent by nature, like my mother; I’m scatterbrained and rather disorganized, like my father); in other cases, I’ve tried to use what I believed to be their mistakes to help guide myself down a different path (I try very hard to be open and honest about emotions with my family.) But I’m sure I’ve got my own set of blind spots and flaws (that I just don’t see!)
2. Was it difficult to adapt to the highly-competitive atmosphere of Harvard in contrast to where you grew up?
Here’s a semi-open secret (which I suppose I now feel far enough from that I can share on a public forum): Harvard is not terribly academically competitive. Some ghastly high percentage of the graduating class graduates ‘with honors’. There are plenty of *extremely* smart, *extremely* motivated students there; however, it’s not (or it wasn’t, in the late 1990s) nearly as cut-throat as one might expect, at least from an academic perspective. As much of a geek then as I am now, I was expecting a ‘nerd paradise’ where everyone was really interested in academics, but, at least on its surface, it wasn’t that way. There was a new set of social pressures that were very different than I was used to, coming from small-town Indiana. I struggled to navigate the environment without really realizing, at the time, why I was struggling.
Don’t get me wrong – for a student who has the savvy to take advantage of the resources at your fingertips, Harvard is a place with great access to high caliber minds and resources. But if you’re not savvy in a somewhat elite culture (as I wasn’t), if you don’t have clear goals for your experience at college (I didn’t), and you’re far from your source of grounding (as I was), then it can all seem a bit bewildering. I didn’t really adapt well. I posted several very lackluster semesters; I vacillated between majors.
Although the four years I spent there gave me a much more realistic view of the wider world and gave me invaluable experience interacting with people from many different walks of life, I graduated without having gotten much academically out of my time there (which remains a regret of mine). I had such lackluster academic performance and experience that, when I decided to go to grad school, I spent several years taking night classes to bolster my credentials for admission to grad school.
5. What keeps you up at night in regards to your work?
Very little, and that is by design. When I set out to get a graduate degree, I first wanted to be a professor at a research university. As I progressed through my graduate work, two things happened: (1) I got older and less interested in spending all of my time working on academic (in both senses) pursuits; (2) I saw *how much time* university professors, especially ones attempting to earn tenure, spend on their work (many routinely log 80 hour weeks often in pursuit of something that won’t ever go beyond an article published in an academic journal that six people will read, and at least half of the assistant professors attempting to earn tenure never do).
I decided to refocus my target job toward industry, where I could presumably find an interesting job that required only 40 hours of my time each week. I was pursuing my doctorate at the University of Texas at Austin, which has strong ties to the energy industry; so that industry was a logical target. It turns out that large energy companies (e.g., ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell) maintain research and development branches that hire people with my skills sets. So I get to spend my 40 hours a week working on interesting problems, and then, with a few exceptions during rush projects, I can leave it all behind and go home to my family. It’s a good gig; I feel very lucky.
6. What piece of your work inspires you that you could work on for hours on end?
I really like finding solutions to complex problems in which the solution provides the information that is needed to make a good decision. (Too often, people end up building complex ‘solutions’ that don’t actually give the information that’s necessary to make a good decision.) A very big part of finding solutions that provide enough information to make a decision is dealing effectively with uncertainty, which is a topic that fascinates me. To be a bit glib: I like thinking about how we can know what we don’t know.
7. Today, the youngest generation entering the workforce, otherwise known as Millennials, are often characterized by their desire to find meaningful work. But, do you believe that Millennials should learn to better manage their expectations of constantly loving every minute of their work or are these ambitions are rightly justified?
I think it’s great to have work that you love, and people, such as me, who do have that good fortune are very blessed. My concern with this view is that it undervalues work that people don’t love. I think part of the reason that Millennials are so focused on finding work that they ‘love’ is because we as a culture have come to undervalue plain old ‘work’, and so it’s seen in certain latte-drinking sectors as somehow less good to ‘just’ have a job. Having work that doesn’t inspire you but that supports you and your family is, in my opinion, as honorable (if not more honorable) than having the semi-mythical ‘job that you love’.
First, I’d assert that the latter is a much easier job to have, because it doesn’t require you to drag yourself out of bed day after day; second, many families and even our country as a whole are supported by people doing jobs that they don’t love, that don’t define them, and that don’t really carry much romance. I don’t think it’s about managing expectations; I think it’s about focusing on what we really value. If stars align for you and you wind up with a job that you love, great; but if they don’t, you’re not less valuable as a contributing member to society. I think if Millennials saw the workforce in that way, there wouldn’t be so much angst.
8. Has your definition of success changed throughout your life?
This is a very thought-provoking question. I still don’t quite know what success is, and I consider myself young and as-yet-to-acquire the wisdom that would allow me to really answer this question with any degree of gravitas. I suppose as a little kid, I defined success through the eyes of my parents: “Are Mommy and Daddy pleased by my actions?” As a young adult, I probably tended to give more weight to the esteem of others, including my peers: “Do people respect me?” Somewhere in my 20s or 30s, I migrated to the view, “Do I respect myself? Am I living my life in accordance with what I believe to be important?” I’d imagine there’s at least one more refinement of that view as I grow in maturity and experience. But I’ve yet to know what that is. I suppose if I die having tried to stay true to my values and having done right by those I love and by our larger society, I’ll have been ‘successful.’
9. I know that some of your job is top secret, but what can you share with us in regards to your knowledge of the future of energy in this country?
Hah! I’m not that important to the company.
The following link is ExxonMobil’s energy outlook for 2015; to put it together, the company spends a great deal of effort looking toward the future of the energy industry (i.e., what sorts of energy will be used, how is efficiency changing the demand, where will supply come from, who will need energy, etc.). It is the main source of my own information on the topic; so I share it with you. http://cdn.exxonmobil.com/~/media/global/Reports/Outlook%20For%20Energy/2015/2015-Outlook-for-Energy_print-resolution
10. Due to the current infrastructure of our nation, where do you actually see the country in terms of energy in 50 years?
A lot can happen in 50 years (A lot can happen in 10—just look at the shale-gas ‘revolution’ that has genuinely shifted the energy landscape not just in the US but in the world. Back in 2005, no one knew that would happen.) Over the long term, I believe the US (and the globe) will shift toward ever-increasing efficiency of energy use, simply because that is more cost effective. I believe infrastructure is a fundamental responsibility of government; it remains unclear to me whether the political climate of the US will enable the government to make necessary investments in infrastructure to enable quick shifts to greener fuels.
11. What do you believe will be the biggest factor influencing a greater adoption of green energy sources in the U.S. in the near future?
Cost of energy, technology improvements, and infrastructure changes/improvement, although I’m not sure in what order. To completely migrate to renewable energy sources, they have to come down in cost (which is happening, albeit slowly), and we have to build an infrastructure that supports their use (where, exactly, am I going to charge my electric car when I drive across the country?). Technology improvements can drastically increase efficiency (think of LED lightbulbs) and can incentivize sudden shifts between energy sources (the next energy source or clean-energy-enabling technology may be invented tomorrow).
I believe climate change is a very serious problem, especially for countries without sufficient resources to adapt. Climate change creates a moral imperative to migrate toward cleaner sources of energy. Unfortunately, moral imperative or not, being able to choose to spend more money for your energy source simply because it is greener is a luxury only the relatively wealthy have, and from a global climate change perspective, the heavy-hitter for the future is the increasing energy demand from the rest of the world. (And the US can’t very well say, “Well, we like our standard of living, but – sorry – you can’t have what we have because, well, climate change. ‘Sucks to be you!”)
In any event, all green energy sources currently available have a downside that prevents their current wide adoption (solar panels are expensive and are not necessarily so good for the environment [see http://spectrum.ieee.org/green-tech/solar/solar-energy-isnt-always-as-green-as-you-think]; wind energy is great…when and where there’s sufficient wind; hydropower is nice, when there’s not a major drought [e.g., what’s currently going on in the western part of the US] and if you don’t mind all of the downsides that come to ecosystems when dams are put in place; nuclear power is extremely efficient, if you’re not worried about waste disposal or Chernobyls; no one has come up with a truly green fuel for transportation; etc.).
But given the high stakes game we’re playing with the environment and the significant monetary incentive to develop something better, I wouldn’t be surprised if some new technology is soon developed that either introduces a new source of green energy or makes a current one much more palatable/transportable/cost-effective.
12. If you could give one piece of advice to anyone entering the working world today, what would it be?
It’s trite, but it’s true: what really defines you is the way that you respond to challenges. Things aren’t always going to go well; life is not fair; you will screw up. When a challenging situation arises, learn from it; pick up the pieces; perhaps revise your worldview; but above all,...
The Winding Road: Computer Modeler Moves From Climate to Energy. (n.d.). Retrieved April 10, 2015, from http://www.jsg.utexas.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/TrueStoriesGulden2-small.pdf
Based in Chicago, Jessica reports on career motivation, marketing, entrepreneurship, and many other topics. She is devoted to helping others see things in a different light.