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A Conversation with Dr. Michele Ostraat, AIO 2015 Keynote

Arlene Smith, Ph.D.

During the last several years at RTI, I had the opportunity to work on a strategic initiative related to the development and implementation of applied research capabilities in Saudi Arabia. As part of this effort, I traveled extensively throughout Saudi Arabia and met with representatives from government, academia, and industry. As Saudi Aramco is a major industrial participant in Saudi Arabia, I had the opportunity to meet with many representatives across Saudi Aramco in diverse businesses, such as R&D, strategy, new business development, and ventures. This allowed me to gain a very important perspective on priorities for Saudi Aramco and the role that they play in the economy of Saudi Arabia and how applied research could help further their goals, both at a company level and at a country level. When the opportunity to lead one of Aramco’s Research Centers for Downstream became available, I was immediately interested because I had already developed a strong appreciation for Aramco’s goals and vision for the Center and I was confident that I had the skills and knowledge to contribute to this Center’s success in a meaningful way.


How would you describe your role?

As the Downstream Research Center Leader for Aramco Research Center – Boston, I create, manage, and lead scientific teams and programs to accelerate technical innovation in downstream oil and gas. In this role, I am responsible for 1) creating a world-class team and laboratory capability that deliver cutting-edge technical value in the development and optimization of advanced materials, 2) growing the company’s technology leadership through meaningful contributions to the scientific community, 3) supporting strategic activities and initiatives, and 4) building relationships and collaborations to enhance opportunities for Aramco to solve downstream technical challenges. To achieve these goals, I am continuing to build a flexible and versatile team of scientists and engineers who conduct applied research in chemistry, materials science, and engineering in diverse downstream technologies, including membranes for gas separation, porous materials for catalysis, and advanced composites for corrosion resistance. I also interface extensively with collaborators across industry and academia to identify, optimize, and deploy advanced materials for Saudi Aramco’s many exciting materials challenges.


How do you hire? What questions do you ask when you are interviewing job candidates?

Very selectively. Successful candidates typically are referred from professional connections and references rather than coming through an online resume submission process. Thus, it is important for job seekers to build their professional network so that they can find available positions, just like it is important for my team and myself to continue to build and foster our professional networks to find these excellent candidates.

We do not have a set of established questions, and we do not follow an exact formula. Typically, we ask questions that probe the candidate’s interest in the type of technical work that we do as well as their interest in contributing within a collaborative, team-based environment that we use to solve technical challenges. We also ask questions designed to assess a candidate’s ability to think creatively, to adapt technical knowledge to new areas, and to seek collaborative and interdisciplinary approaches to solving complex technical challenges.


Your presentation focuses on the use of optical systems in the oil and gas industry. Can you briefly describe a single technical challenge you are facing right now in striving to improve this technology?

A major technical challenge is the deployment of optical materials and systems into the field, which means that we need a plan for the technologies we are considering to become ruggedized for our ambient conditions as well as manufacturable at scales suitable for Saudi Aramco. This requires a significant amount of preplanning as well as the discipline to stop pursuing technologies that are not robust or field deployable. Another challenge we have in the use of optical systems is that they need to be predictable over the long term, which means that we need to know when they are going to fail before they actually fail.


What is the proudest achievement in your career so far?

This is a hard question, as I don’t have that “proudest achievement” in my career, but more a series of them that have a lasting impact over time. I am proud of the people I have influenced who have gone on to pursue successful scientific and technical careers and of my confidence to take risks that have led to some amazing professional opportunities and experiences that I could never have predicted.


We hear a lot about the lack of women pursuing STEM careers, though the tide seems to be slowly turning. Have you any advice for young women who are attracted to scientific and technical studies?

For young women, have the confidence in yourself to know that you can contribute in a unique and invaluable way, even if you are the only woman in the room or on the team. Contribute your own perspectives confidently as a technical team is strengthened by a diversity of ideas, not a uniformity of ideas.

For all young people who are attracted to scientific and technical studies, look for opportunities that consistently use and play to your strengths, rather than those that make you focus on your weaknesses. Realize what it is that you do well and find opportunities that use those skills as you will bring more passion, enthusiasm, and productivity to your role. Of course, work on areas that need improvement, but really only to the point that they do not negatively impact your career. The job title and pay grade should be of low priority to those starting in a scientific career. These rewards and raises will come faster if you actually enjoy your job, since you will consistently bring passion and enthusiasm to your position, rather than being asked to perform in a role that makes you miserable but has a great title and higher initial pay.


Geeks love mind-blowing facts that "make you think". Can you impart one to us from your studies, industry work or just one that you have recently learned?!

If the earth were shrunk to the size of a billiard ball, the earth would actually be smoother than a billiard ball!


Dr Ostraat will present her Keynote at 10:30am on Monday, June 8 2015 at the Imaging and Applied Optics Congress, Renaissance Arlington Capital View Hotel, Arlington VA.

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