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Department: Geosciences

Smith Geosciences

Laura K. O. Smith ’05

Marine Seismic Engineer, Schlumberger

Field work and friendships

I spent my first Princeton fall break hiking up mountains, wandering around rock outcrops, and staring at old glacial valleys in the Sierra Nevada of California. Looking back, I consider that week one of my most formative. I remember one day sitting on an outcrop looking out at the old glacial valley. Our four professors leading our clueless, but curious group of 20 freshmen had told us to sit, look, write, and draw what we saw and come up with a story. I sat, stared, and at first couldn’t really see a thing, except the grassy hillside. But the longer I sat there, the more I started to see the patterns emerge and evidence of past glaciers appear. I had intended to be a mechanical engineer, but with so many questions to be found in the mountains, I switched that spring to geological engineering.

The geology freshman seminar was the first of many geology field trips that I took at Princeton that led me all over the United States and the world—Montana for a summer, many trips to New Mexico, a summer in Mongolia, a spring break in Morocco, and even a semester in New Zealand. What makes geology different from most disciplines is the necessity of the hands-on. Those weeks outside gave me whole semesters worth of amazing knowledge—how mountains grew up and then were eroded away, how faults drastically changed landscapes, and how to map and document everything that I found. I learned to look at what surrounded me and ask, Why? How? When?

The people, though, are what made geology so special to me. No other major allows one to spend so much time outside of a classroom with peers and professors. I’ve shared many meals, jokes, and evenings after a hard day of hiking, with professors who I now consider my good friends and mentors. The shared experience with my classmates from so many field trips and the common struggle to understand the rocks in front of us cannot be matched in the classroom. In fact, many of my closest friends at Princeton were classmates from that very first trip to California.

Oceans come calling

After spending so much time in academia, and having grown up in Washington, D.C., surrounded by government jobs, I wanted to see what the for-profit sector looked like. So, like any good environmentalist, I went to look for oil. I will admit that when I left Princeton with geological engineering on my transcript, I was a much better geologist than actual engineer. Now, however, I work as a seismic engineer on a vessel shooting air guns into the water to get data about where oil may be under the ocean. Living on a vessel under intense pressure from oil companies to find oil and find it fast, I find that my Princeton geology training comes into play daily. The details of Mongolian mountain building may not come up on a daily basis, but the deeply ingrained questioning I developed doing field work continually helps me troubleshoot on the boat. The geological principles that I learned help me to do quality control on the data that are coming in through our recording equipment, and the community living during Princeton field trips is very similar to shipboard life, where I share a 240-foot-long vessel with 48 other people for five weeks at a time. Best of all, the travel has continued, as I have now worked in India and Norway, with more places soon on the way.

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