Katherine Turner: My path to becoming a deepwater drilling engineer

Posted on 20. Apr, 2012 by in Academic Departments, Alumni, Issues, Magazine, Materials Science and Engineering, People

Kate Turner

Kate Turner

My name at the time was Kate Parker. Rumor had it that I was the first female undergraduate since World War II. I was a psychology major in 1975 looking for an engineering degree when I ran into Professor Heinz in the mining and metallurgy hallway. He was the first middle-aged adult I spotted. He almost had a heart attack when I asked him to tell me about mining engineering, and offered me a scholarship on the spot.

There were only three professors in mining engineering at the time, including Professor Haimson. The number of graduate students and undergraduate students was small and under-graduates took several graduate-level classes. We worked with graduate students in the research labs, which exposed me to the state-of-the-art technology of the time.

When I started in the department, some states still had laws barring women from entering underground mines. Because the last underground mine in the state closed by my second year, I organized field trips to nearby states over spring breaks so we could visit active mines. Those field trips took engineering from theoretical to real and were exciting for me.

When I started mining engineering classes, coal was king. When I graduated, there was an oil shortage and oil prices were skyrocketing along with the demand for engineers. My four geology classes and one petroleum-engineering class prepared me far better than my colleagues for my first job as a petroleum engineer in West Texas for Arco Oil and Gas (now BP).

After my first year, I transferred offshore to new field development in the Gulf of Mexico. I decided I needed to get more field experience (something that was emphasized at UW-Madison). In my third year out of college I went to work for Conoco as its first female drilling engineer. I specialized in more and more complicated exploration wells and moved into deepwater drilling well-planning fairly early in my career with different employers.

I have worked for service companies, drilling contractors, major oil companies, and independents, as well as participated in the startup of a specialized
engineering consulting firm. I wrote drilling engineering software for one of the first handheld computers in the early ‘80s, because I had a programming course at UW-Madison.

I now work for a Norwegian oil company (Statoil) in the deepwater drilling group. My job is technical supervision (lots of individual training) of the 10 deepwater drilling engineers who plan and execute the 30,000-foot deep deepwater wells that the company drills in the Gulf of Mexico. Each well costs from $100 to $200 million and each engineer plans the well virtually alone. I really enjoy passing on my experience to the bright young men and women that engineering attracts now (including my own daughter who is a refinery engineer for Shell).

The training I received in geology, rock mechanics, and fluid flow has served me extremely well as a drilling engineer. The rock mechanics graduate-level work that was being done at the time at UW-Madison made it into the mainstream of drilling 15 years later, and I was lucky to help implement its early use.
I’ve also used the programming courses, chemistry classes, physics classes, mining economics and drafting that I studied at UW-Madison. I occasionally
get to work with the geology students and rock mechanics PhD candidates that I studied with.

I am currently the only licensed professional engineer with a drilling job in the company. After the Macondo blowout, the government required direct oversight of well planning by a licensed engineer, so I’m finally using my stamp after almost 30 years. You never know when it will come in handy. Not to forget, the financial compensation of mining and petroleum engineering was then, and continues to be, incredible!

I owe my continuous employment and some of the highest compensation that a bachelor’s degree can provide to my mining engineering degree from UW-Madison.”Bucky Badger head

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