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Pursuing a career in energy

Jamal's interest in a career helping meet the world's energy needs has taken him from Ghana to Alaska, where he now works as an associate drilling engineer with ConocoPhillips.

Ker Than
February 14, 2017
Jamal Cherry portrait
Credit: Tamer Shabani

After graduating with a Master of Science in Petroleum Engineering from Stanford Earth in 2016, Jamal Cherry headed to Alaska’s North Slope as a newly hired associate drilling engineer with ConocoPhillips.

“The cold weather has definitely taken some getting used to, but I’ve really embraced the outdoors since moving to Alaska by going on hikes, fishing, and getting into trap shooting,” Cherry said. “The thing I’ve liked the most so far has been how friendly everyone is. It seems like most people here are, or have been, transplants at some point, so they don’t hesitate to take you out on hikes or show you around the area.”

Jamal Cherry in Ghana

In college, Jamal interned at an energy company in Ghana. Image courtesy of Jamal Cherry.

As part of his current role, Cherry works a 2-weeks-on/2-weeks-off shift at a site about a 1.5-hour flight from Anchorage. His day usually begins at 4:30 a.m. and lasts for 12 hours or longer. “My current job function is within the drilling group as a rig engineer,” Cherry said. “Some of my day-to-day tasks include drafting detailed plans and procedures for daily rig operations; running and updating computer models; and troubleshooting and making on-the-fly adjustments, because we typically function under a great deal of operational uncertainty.”

So far, the new gig is proving to be everything Cherry had hoped for. “I was searching for a unique, challenging, and dynamic experience, and it’s been all three,” said Cherry. “The job is extremely hands-on and has given me great exposure to the complexity of drilling operations.”

Importance of energy to a reasonable standard of living

The relevance of a career in petroleum engineering hit Cherry during his sophomore year in college, when he witnessed firsthand the importance of energy for society during a seven-week internship at a utility company in Ghana.

Jamal Cherry's day at ConocoPhillip's North Slope site in Alaska usually starts at 4:30 a.m. Image courtesy of Jamal Cherry.

“You could look on one side of the street and see office buildings, and on the other side, there would be people living in makeshift housing without power,” Cherry said. “I realized how important energy is to providing a reasonable standard of living, and seeing this disparity in Ghana was an eye-opening experience for me. Finding sustainable ways to meet our growing energy demand is going to continue to be a challenge for at least my lifetime, and it’s one that I want to be part of the solution for.”

After his return to the United States, Cherry continued majoring in civil engineering at Cornell University but applied to other energy-focused internships, including one at the oil and gas services company Schlumberger, where he got his first taste of working in the oil fields. “I worked a summer with a hydraulic fracturing team in South Texas,” Cherry said. “We wore hard hats and steel-toe boots and spent most of the day outside working 12-hour shifts.”

The work was grueling and intense, and Cherry loved every minute of it. “It was a good experience to get an on-the-ground view of the industry,” he said. “The one thing that really stuck out while I was in the field was their attention to detail and safety. They really take it seriously.”

“Renewables are the future, but we can’t forget about oil and gas, because right now, it’s still an important part of the energy equation.”

Growing up, Cherry says his parents never pushed him into any particular career track, but instead encouraged him to pursue his passion. He didn’t know any engineers in his community in Tampa, Florida, but his mother had a doctorate in psychology, and his father a doctorate in veterinary medicine. “You could say that my parents’ backgrounds influenced my decision to go to graduate school, but I wasn’t exposed to high-level science until I took high school physics,” Cherry said. “I really enjoyed those classes, and because of that a teacher recommended I consider majoring in engineering in college. So that’s what I did.”

Greater efficiency and less environmental impact

Following college, Cherry was admitted to the graduate program at Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, where he fell under the tutelage of Energy Resources Engineering (ERE) professor Louis Durlofsky. “Hearing him talk about his research and the different opportunities for me, I got really excited. That’s when I decided, ‘I really want to work with Lou. He seems like a great advisor.’”

Lou Durlofsky (left) and Jamal Cherry (right)

Lou Durlofsky (left) and Jamal Cherry. Credit: Tamer Shabani

Durlofsky has a reputation for being diligent and detail oriented, and some of those traits have rubbed off on Cherry. “Lou’s philosophy is ‘Do it right the first time so you don’t have to do it over again,’” he said. “I think working with him enhanced my professionalism and has influenced my mindset in the way I approach problems.”

What stuck in Durlofsky’s mind about Cherry was his focus. “What I remember most about Jamal is that he was very clear on what he wanted to do,” said Durlofsky, who is also an affiliate member of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and the Precourt Institute for Energy.

What Cherry wanted to do was “computational optimization,” or using computers to make oil and gas drilling more efficient, an area of study that he was first exposed to while interning at NETL (National Energy Technology Lab) in Morgantown, West Virginia. “I thought optimization was a good topic for me to get into because it’s very versatile,” Cherry said. “It can be used in a number of applications.”

Durlofsky is a leading developer of simulation-based optimization tools for subsurface flow, particularly for oil, gas, and geologically sequestered carbon dioxide. “It is extremely expensive to develop any kind of oil or gas field. A single offshore well can cost $100 million,” Durlofsky said. “Being able to simulate flow enables you to play what-if games. ‘If I put wells here, here, and here, how much does that cost, and how much do I produce and what’s the environmental impact? Let’s contrast that with putting wells in other locations.’ Computational optimization entails the automated assessment of literally thousands, or tens of thousands, of different sets of well configurations.”

“I thought optimization was a good topic for me to get into because it’s very versatile. It can be used in a number of applications.”

Together, Cherry and Durlofsky developed an algorithm that reduces the computational burden of complex simulations by employing “surrogate” models that rely on simplified physics. Extending a procedure developed by former ERE student Kurt Wilson (MS ’12), this method very efficiently approximates relevant flow quantities using simplified computations, yielding faster results. “The surrogate models give very similar answers to the full-physics models, but they take only seconds to run instead of many minutes or hours,” Durlofsky said. “That enables the optimizations to run much faster.”

To ensure that the surrogate models are accurate, it’s necessary to occasionally “retune” them during optimizations. “The idea is that the great majority of the simulations performed during optimization are done on this very fast model,” Durlofsky said, “but you have to every now and again come back to the full-physics model in order to make sure the results are aligned.”

You belong here

Cherry admits that upon first arriving at Stanford, he was intimidated by how smart everyone seemed to be, and he worried about not being able to keep up. But that changed after his first midterm exam. “I ended up doing really well, and that was a huge weight off my shoulders,” he said. “It showed me, ‘OK, you’re smart. You belong here. You just have to work hard, and it’s going to be all right.’ That was a big moment for me.”

While the world is shifting slowly to renewable sources of energy such as solar and wind, Cherry still sees a need for people with his particular skill set. “For my lifetime, I still see oil and gas being important for maintaining our standard of living, both here and in developing countries,” Cherry said. “Renewables are the future, but we can’t forget about oil and gas, because right now, it’s still an important part of the energy equation.”