2013 Distinguished Lecturer

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Gerard T. Schuster

King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Thuwal, Saudi Arabia

Seismic interferometry and beyond: Harvesting signal from coherent noise


Gerard SchusterPlease tell us a little bit about yourself (e.g., your educational and work experience, why you became geophysicist, etc.)

As a child, I grew up in an amazing era: Sputnik, flying saucer hysteria, bad 1950s science fiction films, unregulated chemistry sets, affordable Edmund telescopes and microscopes, easy access to gunpowder recipes from Encyclopedia Brittanica, the dawn of lasers, satellites, transistors, atomic energy, etc. It didn't hurt to have dad's basement full of high-tech gizmos such as disassembled radios, oscilloscopes, and drawers of electronic parts. This witch's brew must have hit critical mass because by the time I was in 8th grade I knew I wanted to be a physicist, and understand some of the unbelievable things I had read, but could not understand, about relativity and quantum mechanics. I also grew to love chemistry in high school, and so majored in both physics and chemistry at Portland State University. I switched into geophysics in graduate school, mainly because of the job opportunities, and received my master's degree from the University of Houston. Immediately after that I worked for Arco as a data processor in Dallas and an interpreter in Houston for about 1.6 years. This gave me an opportunity to learn some of the wisdom and practical skills for exploration geophysics, and also fired my thirst to deeply understand imaging and deconvolution algorithms.

Fortunately, I was accepted by the perfect school for me, Columbia University, and studied under a great advisor, John Kuo. He gave me almost complete freedom to fill the gaps in my knowledge, and he also was in charge of a strong geophysical research consortium supported by more than a dozen oil companies. After my Columbia PhD in geophysics, I stayed an additional 1.5 years as a postdoc and then accepted an assistant professorship at the University of Utah in 1985.

I had an extremely rewarding career at the University of Utah from 1985 to 2009, and successfully developed the UTAM industrial consortium; its goal was to develop innovative modeling and imaging algorithms. I very much enjoyed the collegiality at UU, the wonderful support and opportunities for creative research, and the birth of my second family, my current and former graduate students.

In 2009, two perfect storms collided, the world financial crisis and my daughter's impending entrance into an expensive private college, which prompted my move to King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia. Overall, it has been quite an experience at KAUST, and the research support is unprecedented. The result is that the quality of my current students/postdocs and their output is at least equal to the best groups I worked with at UU. UTAM might have ended in 2010, but our new CSIM consortium easily picked up from where UTAM ended, and even more so. We are combining seismic imaging methods and Shuyu Sun's expertise on fluid modeling to develop improved methods for reservoir management.

Would you like to mention anything about your personal attributes that helped you achieve the professional status you enjoy today; was it self-belief, hard work, a mentor, or something else?

I have a passion for physics and mathematics, a large curiosity coefficient, and, when I am keenly interested in something, I diligently dig until I get to the bottom of things. I also try to explain things in an easy to understand way, which is the only way I really understand something. Some inspiring classical geophysical heroes, to name a few, are Jon Claerbout, Paul Richards, Hiro Kanamori, Albert Tarantola, Bob Stolt, and Enders Robinson. Today's seismic savants in exploration geophysics include Yi Luo, John Etgen, Serge Fomel, Ilya Tsvankin, Dave Hale, Kees Wapenaar, Bill Harlan, Paul Fowler, Jean Virieux, Biondo Biondi, Bill Symes, Ross Hill, Joe Dellinger, George McMechan, Yu Zhang, Dirk Verschuur, G. Berkhout, Art Weglein, and dozens more. And a person who made a fundamental contribution to both exploration and earthquake science in the 1990s is Marta Woodward.

Why did you choose this lecture topic? Why is it important?

Seismic interferometry is a method in which coherent noise can be harnessed to help better image the subsurface. For example, free-surface multiples are often considered to be enemies, and so geophysicists devote much time in their suppression. In my lecture I hope to convince you that they can help you, and sometime significantly enhance the illumination of the subsurface.

Could you tell us in a few sentences what your course objectives are?

The objective is to explain the basic concepts of interferometry in an easy-to-understand manner. I will show examples of how coherent noise can be harnessed to improve the seismic imaging of the subsurface, either through interferometry or by tuning imaging conditions to the multiples.

The audience does not need to be convinced that when they drive home they should look out the front windshield (primary reflections from objects ahead of them) as well as their side and rearview mirrors (secondary reflections from cars behind and next to them). In the same way, I hope to convince the audience that the use of coherent multiples gives second and third extra views of the subsurface to sometimes dramatically improve their view of the subsurface.

Are there any more specific areas that you want to emphasize?

I will show examples of how harnessing multiples can significantly enhance the subsurface illumination for VSP, OBS, and refraction data. The big teaser is the use of multiples for imaging below salt, something achieved with synthetic examples, but not yet with field data. This is an exciting frontier of geophysical research.

What do you hope people will have learned after they attend your lecture? How is it different from other lectures?

Don't throw away multiples; these provide new opportunities for reducing exploration risk. This lecture is different in that it goes against conventional wisdom, and suggests that coherent noise can be a useful partner in exploration seismology.

You have quite a busy year ahead. Do you enjoy traveling? Will it be difficult to balance the tour with your work?

I enjoy travel when I can see and interact with old friends, visit historically interesting areas of the world, and have the opportunity for outdoor adventures. I love to be surprised by the unexpected delight. KAUST is generous enough to give me the semester off after I doubled up on my teaching load in the fall of 2012.

Would you share with us one or two of your most exciting successes?

Seeing students come up with unexpected breakthroughs: Yi Luo's amazing derivation of the wave-equation traveltime inversion formalism, successful waveform inversion of crosswell data by Changxi Zhou, unexpected success in inverting for 3D colluvial wedges by Dave Morey, Yonghe Sun's quasi-Monte Carlo migration, Hongchuan Sun's fast wavepath migration algorithm, Dave Sheley's reduced migration, Jianhua Yu's success with VSP interferometry, Jianxing Hu and Jianhua Yu's migration deconvolution, and Pawan and Ian's super-virtual interferometry. I am continually surprised to see the weak kittens in the litter sometimes grow rapidly to become roaring tigers by the time they graduate.

How about a couple of disappointments?

I disappointed some of my colleagues and graduate students when I left for KAUST. Some students had to continue their work at UU under other advisors, which was a hardship in terms of delayed graduation. I injured my hip in 2002, so I could no longer play basketball, a lifelong passion, with the students after work.

What advice would you give to geophysics students and professionals just starting out in the industry?

For MS students, pick a great school that offers broad training in geophysics and geology. For PhD students who want to specialize in seismic imaging, pick a school with a deeply knowledgeable advisor who will let you learn the fundamental physics and math of seismic and EM wave propagation. Unlike me, learn more about rock physics and geology; hopefully, your school will have its own seismic equipment, you can go out to the field and test ideas and enjoy the outdoors. Working for a few years in the industry prior to getting a PhD is a huge plus, and summer internships at oil companies are a close second. Learn parallel programming languages with C, C++, and/or Fortran. Read scientific journals, papers, and books outside of geophysics. Nature, Science, IEEE, SPIE, SIAM, and optics literature are great resources.