Haakon Fossen talks about geology

Comunitexto: The geologist’s day is celebrated in other countries at the first Sunday in April. Can you tell us a little bit more of this special time of the year?

Haakon Fossen: First of all, I think the geologist’s day is a great idea and something that should be expanded to more countries. In fact, I first heard of it through Brazilian friends and colleagues. It is in other words not something that is celebrated in Scandinavia or North America where I have spent most of my academic career. Apparently it is a Russian invention that in a way marks the transition from winter to summer and the field work and expeditions that usually comes with it (up here on the northern hemisphere at least). The timing is very appropriate, and is also a time for field trips and field courses.

Comunitexto: And for those who are going to start working with geology. What they should do to be successful?

Haakon Fossen: First a piece of advice to students: choose the direction within geology that you like the most, the one that you think you could pursue most successfully based on your interest and skills. Do not study petroleum geology just because you think it leads you to a better job. The petroleum industry can use geologists with many different backgrounds. I also believe that exposing yourself to as much field geology as possible is good. Chances are that you will spend most of your professional career in an office buildlng, particularly if you start working for an oil company.

Once you start working I believe it is important to keep in touch with science and academia (unless you really want to become an administrator. Read scientific journal papers within your field of interest and field of work so that you don’t get left behind. This will make your work more interesting, and it will also make you in a better position to come up with new ideas and to stand out as someone who knows his or her stuff and thereby to be put on more interesting and challenging projects. For many geologists it would also be a great advantage to master English well.

Comunitexto: How has this career changed since you first started? The new technologies changed the geology market?

Haakon Fossen: Everything has become more international. English is a much more important language in non-English speaking countries, including Brazil. I am sure we will see an increase in the demand and use of English in many branches of Brazilian geology-related companies. On the more technical side, I really see a change toward a heavier use of numerical models, GIS-related tools and more sophisticated remote-sensing data (seismics, LIDAR-data and more) that requires a higher level of technical skills. In the midst of all of this I would also emphasize that the fundamental principles of geology is just as important as before.

Comunitexto: What is the most difficult part of your job?

Haakon Fossen: As a researcher the most difficult part is to decipher the information that is contained in outcrops, seismic images and other data that relate directly to geology. It is interesting how our interpretations and perceptions depend on examples shown in textbook, lectures and articles that we have read. Sometimes we have to sit down and take some time to rethink, to go back to scratch and try out different models and interpretations, and to do some independent thinking.

Another thing that can be difficult is to predict things for a specific case based on general knowledge. For example, to characterize subseismic faulting in an oil field. Analogs only gives you some general statistical input; the actual answer at a particular drilling location will always be uncertain. For example, a fault is a single line on a seismic line, but in detail (at the subseismic scale) the fault actually consists of two or three faults, and the consequence of this in a hydrocarbon reservoir can be enormous.

As a professor the most difficult part of my job is to be able to communicate geology to my students in a way that is both understandable and interesting. It requires that you really know the stuff you are talking about, so that you are able to present it in a simple way. Using too much jargon may work if you want to show off, but works poorly if you want to communicate a message.

Comunitexto: What are the most positive features of this profession?

Haakon Fossen: This one is easy: It is to be in touch with rocks or images of rocks, to be in the field and study rocks and structures in situ, to enjoy the beauty of rocks and structures and at the same time realize that you are able to understand some of the history that lies behind and at the same time be filled with awe and respect for its complexity.

Comunitexto: What has been your biggest challenge in this career?

Haakon Fossen: I think that would have to be writing the Structural geology textbook.

Comunitexto: What is a typical day like in your job?

Haakon Fossen: There is actually quite a bit of variation. There is always some interaction with students by means of lecturing or, more commonly, direct interaction with graduate students, which is nice. Then I usually spend some time working on a paper or book chapter, and perhaps someone will show up with a rock or mineral that they want to know more about. Other days are devoted to research project meetings or field work/field courses, and others again to exams and grading. Fortunately there is also time for days in the field.

Comunitexto: You recently come to Brazil to launch your book Structural Geology. How was this experience? Was this very different from other experiences that you had in Norway?

Haakon Fossen: Being able to actually launch a book at a large conference was a new experience for me. It gave me the opportunity to get in touch with users of the book, especially students but also faculty members of universities and some geoscientists from the industry, and to get comments from them. The conference was also much larger than the parallel one in Norway, which is to be expected for a large country like Brazil. On the other hand, geology students and professors worldwide have a lot in common, and I felt that it was easy to fit in. Of course, it would have been even easier had I known Portuguese better.

Comunitexto: Your book was translated to other languages. The Portuguese version had some adjustments. In other countries, have you made any adaptations to fit into their experiences?

Haakon Fossen: Actually the Portuguese version was mostly a direct translation from the English original. The book has since been published in Korean, again a direct translation. It would be nice to exchange some of the photos and examples with Brazilian examples, although there is already one or two in there.

Comunitexto: When have you decided to write a book about structural geology? How was that process?

Haakon Fossen: I started playing with the idea a long time ago, not long after I finished my degree. Then I picked it up again when I started teaching structural geology at the University of Bergen in 1997, and a compendium developed over the following years. I then, mainly during a sabbatical in Salt Lake City in 2002/2003 turned this into a Norwegian textbook (published in 2005). Having done the Norwegian book was a good experience and made me want to writer an English book too, not as a translation but starting over again. So altogether it was a long process where I used bits and pieces from every part of my life as a geologist, from early field trips as a student via my experience in the oil industry to my life as an academic professional at a university.

Comunitexto: You also have a website where you provide extra information available to your readers about structural geology. Did you develop this material before or after writing the book? 

Haakon Fossen: Much of this material was actually developed during the book project, although some of it was completed later. It was my plan to present a combination of the traditional textbook concept and e-learning modules with animated illustrations that communicate the dynamics of geologic processes, in addition to resources such as photos and exercises.

Comunitexto: How these professionals can use social networks or websites to improve their careers?

Haakon Fossen: I think every professor, and also many other geoscientists, should have a website that includes some teaching materials that relate to his or her field of speciality. I also see several interesting websites or blogs maintained by graduate students and young professionals that are quite interesting. Someone who does this will indeed develop new skills and discover new sides of geology. It will also be a useful thing to present at a job interview in many cases. Even social networks can be used to share pictures of interesting features from field trips, experiments, seismic data and more, which hopefully can lead to helpful discussions.