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Women in Industry – Interview with Erika Santana, Principal Engineer at ROSEN

Women in Industry – Interview with Erika Santana, Principal Engineer at ROSEN


How did you get in to the oil and gas industry, was this always the industry for you?

I had just moved to Rio de Janeiro when the biggest accident in the Brazilian oil and gas industry history, the Guanabara Bay spill, happened in 2000.

Although I already had a few years of experience, including work in the offshore industry, a Master’s in Fracture Mechanics, and had kick off a researching project on nano-damage mechanisms, but that was the first time I experienced the consequences of a major, catastrophic failure at a personal level.

I realised then that I didn’t want to work to just understand how events like that happen, I wanted to help to prevent them.

I joined Petrobras, as a pipeline integrity engineer, soon after.

What sparked your interest in engineering?

I was born with it, I think. As a kid, I used to play with broken parts at my family’s mechanics workshop. I remember being fascinated by how seemingly unrelated things could be put together to work with clock-like precision and how suddenly they could lose their ability to do so.

If I could go back in time and hang around with six-year-old me, I believe we would get along quite well. My heroes are still the Apollo 13 guys and Han Solo, and I even ended up captaining my own ship (a sailboat, not a spaceship) every bit as old and prone to disastrous breakdowns as the Millennium Falcon.

What has been the high point of your career so far?

I wouldn’t say the high point but rather the most exciting moment: my first session at a TEM (Transmission Electron Microscopy) with a sample of the nickel-chromium super alloy I was investigating for my doctorate. Navigating through the grain crystals and able to actually see the dislocations piled at the grain borders, the perfect alignment of the atomic planes and the well-defined, nanometric precipitates I knew should be there, was a surreal experience.

I got out of there so excited I wanted to stop people on the streets to show reciprocal space patterns and explain how those precipitates, that nobody had ever seen before, were behind the corrosion pits we had been observing in a material that was supposed to be immune to corrosion.

That sense of wonder - and connection with the atomic structure of the matter - is still inside me whenever I am investigating a failure mechanism in one of my pipelines.

Have you had to face any challenges?

I would say none, but also several. My career has unfolded in a very organic, natural, way so the challenges have been at more of a personal level. Something I never anticipated was that I would end up transforming my bookworm, couch-lover, nerdy self into an adrenaline junkie.

Since getting into this industry, my hunt for evidence and facts started to involve a little bit more than a trip to library or lab. I have crossed thousands of miles over non-existent roads and unbridged rivers; climbed unstable mountain slopes; baked under scorching suns and almost dissolved under diluvium rains; hiked through rainforests, swamps and third world favelas and even got into a tete-a-tete encounter with illegal tapping criminals. The most staggering thing, at least to me, is that I’ve loved every single minute.

It is a little bit difficult to compare, because my career took a sharp turn when I moved.

You have a lot of experience working in Brazil, how did you find that in comparison to the UK?

In Brazil, I worked with remaining life extension of critically aged/damaged lines, since moving to the UK and joining ROSEN I work with the development of digital technologies for pipeline integrity. The mind-set is completely different. Formerly, I had to come up with tailored solutions, for very specific cases, where I would be personally responsible for the implementation of every detail. Now, my task is to come up with generalised solutions, that can support the decision-making process for pipeline engineers, all around the world.

That means meeting the regulatory demands of several countries, as well as failure modes, operation and environmental conditions that I might not be familiar with to consider. I also must navigate through the uncharted waters of software development, analytics and big data. Luckily, we have an amazing team here at ROSEN, with extremely experienced individuals as well as bright young talents joining the ranks, who are happy to share their knowledge and learn together. It has been a pleasure – and an invigorating experience - to work with them.

What would you like to see happen in the industry in 2019?

The pipeline industry is on the verge of incredible change. For years, decades even, we have accumulated enormous amounts of operational and damage distribution data, yet we still make most of our integrity management decisions based on unrealistic models or lab-based criteria. I believe we have reached the maturation point where it will be possible to channel and process all that data, and create entirely new, and much more robust, integrity management frameworks.

The roll out of new digital technologies that will pave the way to this new age has already started and I would love to see them really gain momentum in 2019, partially because I am so eager to see the tsunami after-effects, but also because I miss getting involved on a more personal level. I like to know my pipelines, their names and their quirks but, most of all, I miss field work. I will be looking forward to the opportunity to work in the North Sea, the birth place of the offshore and pipeline accident prevention industry. I have even taken a weekend sailing around some rigs there, emanating wishful thoughts, while I tacked round and around.

Besides female toilets availability, I can’t say I have faced any specific difficulties or obstacles.

What would be your advice to other women looking to get in to the industry?

I believe that, whatever your area of interest, what really counts is your professionalism, competence and commitment… not your gender. As general advice, I would say that specialist and generalist profiles are highly valued, but the gurus are usually the ones who can combine – at least at some level - both.

It is a vast industry, with many tribes: try to find yours. There are many technical associations you can join as well as events to attend, and you should not shy away from investing time, money and - most importantly – personal energy on them. Do not underestimate the power of networking and look out for mentors. People are surprisingly eager to teach those who are keen to learn, so don’t be afraid to reach out.

Don’t be afraid of change either, if there is a better way to do something, embrace it, if there is not and you think there should be, create it!

Published: 29-05-2019
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