March is Women’s History month. At Energy.gov we are highlighting the great contributions to science, technology, engineering and mathematics or STEM fields made by women throughout history, as well as highlighting the important work that women are doing in STEM fields today.
Dr. Barbara Kutchko, who works at the Pittsburgh facility of the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), was brought in as an expert by the Department of Justice after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010. Recognizing a knowledge gap in what we know about foam cement, which is frequently used to support underwater wells, Kutchko now leads a research project to study the material properties of foam cement under sub-surface conditions. We asked her some questions about becoming a cement expert.
1. How did you first get interested in working and researching in STEM?
I’m one of those odd characters that just always wanted to be a scientist, to be a researcher. I can’t remember a time in my life that I didn’t want to be a scientist. I loved all the sciences.
I was fortunate enough that I grew up in an environment where I was encouraged. My parents didn’t have college degrees themselves, so when I came up with the typical questions -- ‘Why is the sky blue? Why is the grass green?’ -- they couldn’t give me the scientific answers. But they did everything they could to provide me with resources so I could learn. They bought me a telescope or a little chemistry set with a microscope and we always had National Geographics lying around, and so I had a very broad exposure to science at an early age and a lot of encouragement to follow that passion of mine.
2. How did you choose which science to pursue?
It was really hard, and to be honest, I did flip-flop a little bit. I started in physics because I thought what a great way to study the universe. But really what got me to focus was I moved out west and I lived in Utah, and just the scenery out there -- going up in the mountains or going out into the desert, going whitewater rafting, going caving -- I fell in love with geology.
That really helped me focus on studying the earth and in particular the environment, so I started to focus on environmental geology. And environmental geology was great because it had some physics, it had some chemistry, it had a little bit of everything in it. Plus it allowed me to learn about the world around me, that really excited me.
3. What brought you to NETL?
It was very much a right place, right time. As soon as I knew this place existed I always wanted to work here.
I originally applied with the ORISE [Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education] internship program, and I was very fortunate to have been brought on board through that internship program. I happened to have a set of skills that matched very well with a need that somebody had and it brought me onboard here. And it was basically a match made in heaven, as far as I’m concerned.
Not only does NETL have the cutting-edge facilities, but we have the human factor as well. We have a wealth of expertise -- the professionals I get to work with. And that ranges from people that I can go to as mentors all the way down to the excitement of young students coming in. So it’s a really exciting place to work, and it’s a great place to formulate new ideas and to get those ideas off the ground.
4. Can you tell me a bit about the research you do?
I work primarily in well-bore integrity with respect to oil and gas.
When they go to extract oil or gas from deep underground, they need to drill a well. And when they drill that well they line it with steel casing and they pump cement into that well to hold that steel casing into place and also to make sure that everything stays where it’s supposed to stay -- all the fluids, all the gases -- to make sure nothing leaks out.
We have a large research program that relates to offshore wells -- like in the Gulf of Mexico -- as well as some of the unconventional shale gas wells that are going on locally around our area.
5. What is a project that you’re excited about right now?
My biggest project that I have going on right now is something called the foam cement project, that’s our nickname for it. We’re looking at a particular type of cement called foam cement that is frequently used in wells in the Gulf of Mexico.
We have a unique capability at NETL where we can recreate sub-surface conditions in the lab. And foam cement is one of those materials that is really difficult to study under sub-surface conditions.
Right now we’re just trying to understand the material properties in the context of a sub-surface environment. And that’s very basic. ‘What the heck does this stuff look like and act like in a well?’ Something so simple, we don’t even know that, which was rather alarming to me because they’re already using it and they’ve been using it for a long time.
So really, up until this point, no one studied it under sub-surface conditions. I just put two and two together -- the need plus our capabilities -- and this research effort was born.
We have almost a dozen industry collaborators that are giving us anything from advice to materials. They’ve generated field samples for us. The project has gained global recognition. The project just made the cover story of the Journal of Petroleum Technology, which is the oil and gas industry’s flagship journal.
That really speaks volumes for the whole team, it’s a big team effort. An idea doesn’t get off the ground without a good team.
6. Can you describe a typical “day in the life?”
It’s definitely changed over the years.
When I first started here, I was primarily in the lab, but as I’ve grown here and started building teams and working more with people -- while I do still get in the lab -- I probably spend more time writing papers and interpreting data and trying to understand what we’re looking at, learn from what we’re doing and determine where we’re going to go forward.
My day is very interactive with the folks that I work with. It’s full of energy, moving around a lot -- very multi-disciplined.
7. What would you say the most rewarding part of your research is?
I think the most rewarding part would be actually being able to make a difference.
With the foam cement project, the science that we’re putting out -- whether it’s through publications or reports or presentations or whatever the means is that we get this data out to the public and to industry -- is being used right now to make changes to improve the designs and improve the processes for cementing wells.
For example service companies are using this data to improve their models. The American Petroleum Institute, which writes the recommended practices that the oil and gas industry follows, is using this data to write and rewrite their recommended practices. So we’re making a real-time impact.
8. What advice do you have for students who are interested in your field?
Stay curious, keep wanting to learn, keep that passion, question everything. You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room, but you need to work hard.
9. When you’re not at work what do you like to do?
Hang out with my kids! I either have my work hat on or my mom hat. I believe I have two budding scientists at home. I’ve got a 4-year-old and a 10-year-old.
I also volunteer for therapeutic horseback riding during the summer.
10. How do you think we can get more girls interested in STEM?
I think the best way is the same approach my parents had with me, and that is -- if a young girl shows an interest in science that needs to be supported in whatever manner it takes.
As a mom of a son and a daughter I can get a little crazy when I walk in a toy store and the girl sections are all bright pink, but if my daughter wants a tool set, I’ve gotta go into the “boy section.” Fortunately for my daughter, she’s got a big brother, so she’s got all those toys laying around, and one minute she can play with monster trucks and legos and the next minute she can play with her Barbie dolls.
But we need to stop gender-typing science and math. And we need to start nurturing and encouraging girls that are interested in it at a very early age.