“Choose geophysics, and you will not have a dull day in your life….”


Svetlana Bidikhova is a successful geophysicist in the Calgary oil patch. After receiving a master’s degree in geophysics from Lomonosov Moscow State University, and briefly working for a seismic equipment company in Russia, she arrived in Canada in 1999. After initially working for an engineering company for a brief period, she joined GX Technology, Calgary and then worked at Shell Canada. She has practical experience in seismic processing, complex depth imaging, and quantitative interpretation, and is now working as COO of GeoVectra Ltd., Calgary.

For people who know her and have worked with her, Svetlana is a reliable friend, an inspiration, and a good leader. Her journey has been interesting as she has many accomplishments to her credit. We made it a point to bring her to the RECORDER pages so that the broader CSEG community can get to know her. The following are excerpts from her interview.

Svetlana, let us begin by asking you about your educational background and your work experience.

I have a degree with honors in Geophysics from the Lomonosov Moscow State University. My career, that started with a seismic equipment company in Russia, took a turn when we came to Canada 25 years ago. I started at the engineering company Pure Technology and transitioned back to Oil and Gas with GX Technology (which became ION Geophysical). I worked for Shell for 8 years from 2008 to 2016. I formed GeoVectra 7 years ago with my professional partner. I am currently serving as COO of GeoVectra and in total have been practicing geophysics for over 25 years.

Lomonosov’s Moscow State University – Svetlana’s Alma Mater

You have a master’s degree in geophysics with honors from Lomonosov Moscow State University. Tell us about the standard of this degree vis-à-vis an equivalent degree being offered in, say, North American universities.

Visiting my university is always the most favorite part of my Moscow trips

Moscow State University is one of the finest schools in the World and can be compared to a Russian “Oxford”. I worked extremely hard and passed 5 grueling exams (oral and written), to get accepted; it was very competitive, but it was one of the best things that happened to me in my life. It is difficult to compare the educational systems as well as Universities as both the systems and the approach are very different. Lomonosov Moscow State University is not just a university with the highest standards of education and finest professors, it is also a tremendous life school. People I met there – friends and peers and even some professors – are like my extended family; we still keep in touch. It was a life-changing experience that I will be forever grateful for. It shaped me into who I am. It also gave me an excellent professional background and made me fall in love with our fascinating profession of geophysics at the “tender age” of seventeen.

What kind of work was being done at Pure Technologies Ltd. when you worked there, and what was the nature of your assignment?

Pure Technologies was the first Canadian company I worked for when I came to Canada in 1999. It was an engineering company that specialized in structural integrity monitoring for a variety of engineering objects such as buildings, bridges, and pipelines all around the world. I became a data processing supervisor soon after I was hired and was responsible for the work of the entire data processing department, plus dealing with monitoring sites and clients all over the world. The role was as exciting as it was demanding, and I also had a 1-year-old baby daughter waiting for me at home. I remember functioning in “GI Jane” mode most of the time, but I loved it as I was building my professional career in the greatest country in the world.

You started doing seismic data processing when you joined GX Technology in 2004. How was that experience?

GX Technology does not exist anymore as it became a part of ION Group many years ago, but I loved working for GX Technology. Not only did I have a great chance and the opportunity to work with data from all over the world – North America, Europe, China, Japan, Middle East, but was also fortunate to work with the best specialists in our industry and to learn from them. It is at GX where I first seriously plugged myself into the exciting and challenging world of depth imaging. I am forever grateful to my wonderful GX colleagues and peers from Canada, Denver, Houston, UK and France.

How come you decided to move from a service company to an oil company in 2008, when you joined Shell Canada?

Enjoyed the seismic acquisition field day with my Shell colleagues. Safety and PPE first.

I always had an aspiration to work for a large oil and gas producer and Shell, in particular. GX had offices in the same building as Shell at the time. I remember coming to work at the Shell building and having this strange feeling that one day I will work for this world-leading company. The opportunity found me at my friend’s wedding. I met someone who worked for Shell and offered to send my resume as Shell was looking for experienced specialists at that time. I went for the interview and was soon hired. It was extremely hard to leave GX where I had so many great colleagues, but such an opportunity was a dream of mine, and I was super excited to start with Shell.

Tell us about some of the challenges that you have faced during your experience at GX Technology and then at Shell Canada, and how you addressed them.

At GX the main challenges were related to the work itself – deadlines, and project performance and, in a sense, I was well shielded as I had excellent managers who would step in when needed. It was great. The challenges in Shell were different. Shell would primarily hire A-type super achievers and the best from the best. This environment was very demanding, competitive, and put a lot of pressure on you. All my 8 years in Shell “kept me on my toes” every day and pushed me to the highest levels of my professional and personal functioning. This was by far the most demanding, most challenging, and yet most powerful environment I ever worked in. It gave me an incredible professional and personal push, greatly widened, and expanded my expertise. It was a transformational experience on so many levels. I came out of it much stronger, resilient, and much more experienced.

What differences did you experience in the work culture at the two places?

There was a stark difference in the work culture between GX and Shell. The difference comes from the general difference between service companies and oil and gas producers. In addition, Shell was like a unique country with its own governance, long-standing traditions, mentality, environment, and the way of doing things. Shell company celebrated its centennial anniversary while I was there. Many of my colleagues spent all their life and career working solely for Shell. It was such an immense professional powerhouse. This sets this company apart, creating an extremely highly demanding and highly rewarding working culture of excellence and drive.

Are you happy with the way your career shaped up for you in your life?

Honestly, I could not have dreamed of a better career. Next May we will celebrate our “silver” anniversary of being in Canada. When I came here almost 25 years ago, I could not have imagined I would have this exciting diverse, versatile career path. I am incredibly grateful for all the experiences and proud of my professional achievements.

Now, when you look back at your geophysical career, what were some of the successful landmarks according to you?

There were many successful landmarks, and it is hard to list them all, but if I would pick some – certainly choosing our profession in the first place, my first position in Canada at Pure, my switch to Oil and Gas geophysics with GX, my move to Shell and, of course, founding and leading GeoVectra. One of the recent landmarks which I am very proud of is my volunteering as a Professional mentor with APEGA and SEG. This is something I genuinely believe in and enjoy doing. I am at the stage of my career were passing on and transferring my experience to others is very meaningful and important for me.

How did you decide to become a co-founder of GeoVectra Ltd. in 2016?

I noticed in life often things come together for a reason. As Shell was actively diverting its assets in Canada in 2016, I was offered this opportunity to become a partner with GeoVectra. I always wanted to try and have my own company in our professional business and see for myself how it is, and this wish was granted.

What company strategy did you formulate for GeoVectra Ltd. to stay ahead of some of your competitors and how successful has that been so far? What aspects of the company operations do you oversee as its Chief Operating Officer (COO)?

GeoVectra was a very steep learning curve for me. The formation of the company landed on a downturn in our industry as well as COVID closures and restrictions, but I am proud that we managed to stay afloat. What helped is our adjusted strategy and we regrouped with the adjusted reality. We never really expanded, we kept it conservative and manageable, which I believe helped us to avoid detrimental consequences when so many companies were pushed to closure. Plus, we went and brought in international opportunities when there were no Canadian projects on the horizon for couple of years. We also made sure to stay competitive in our bidding policies and our flexibility. We made some strategic partnerships with similar businesses that helped us in many ways. The one important thing I learnt about strategies is that they must not only be quickly adjusted to reality but must precede reality at least by a step or two. I always saw my duty as COO to make sure we can weather any storms that come our way by being proactive in our strategies and staying current and flexible.

How challenging is it reaching out to your existing or prospective clients, introducing your capabilities, keeping pace with the advancing technology, establishing/re-establishing contacts, etc. to get work for your company? What do you think is the trick in surviving in the industry these days through the up and down cycles?

This is challenging indeed, and I believe this is true for everyone in Calgary right now. I believe the connection and relationships you establish with your clients and partners are a key factor in finding new opportunities. Another important thing is to offer a wider variety of services as, for example, at GeoVectra we offer VSP processing as well as survey design in addition to our main processing services. We are also actively working outside of oil and gas applications for our seismic processing and geophysical expertise in engineering, structural monitoring, mining etc.

How does it feel now when you are the COO and not a seismic processing geophysicist anymore?

I am still a seismic processing geophysicist and always will be. But of course, being a COO is a vastly different role and different level of responsibilities compared to being a processing geophysicist. One thing I learned while being a COO is that in this role there is no one standing behind you to shield you. You are the one who deals with all the issues or challenges and that is a very definitive juxtaposition compared to the role of processing geophysicist.

Beautiful Alberta geology

What qualities do you think you had to adapt or bring out in you to discharge the functionalities as a COO for your company?

Energy is vitally important in this role, also organizational skills, methodical planning, ability to predict, extrapolate and regroup, ability to attract talent when needed, professional enthusiasm and intuition.

Looks like Mike Hall has been like a mentor for you since the beginning. Mike is one of the stalwarts in our industry and has been interviewed for the RECORDER as well. Tell us how helpful this experience in your career was.

I’m very glad that you brought up Mike and his role in my career. I can say without a doubt that my career would not have been the same without Mike. Mike and I go back in time for 30 years. We started out many years ago as peers and colleagues and then transitioned into professional partners and friends. Mike is one of the most talented geophysicists I ever worked with, no doubt. But his main quality I value the most as a professional partner and friend is his integrity and honesty. He is a rare person of heart and kindness, and he is also so very humble about it. I am truly fortunate to have him as my CEO, partner, colleague, and friend.

About to descend into the heart of the Grand Canyon, the earth’s most fascinating geological site. Made it to the bottom of the stratigraphic scale – touched the Archean granites. Only when you are a geoscientist, you get the privilege to time travel 2.5 billion years in one day and call it your profession.

Would you tell us about some of the persons who impressed you during your geophysical career?

Well, of course Mike takes first place in that. But if we speak about others, I can name several names that truly left a remarkable impression with their professionalism and their character: Bill Westwood, David Haugseth, Susanne Schraff, Mike Costello, Don Chitwood, John Faragher, Vlada Avramovich, Ivan Beranger, Peter Poulson, Richard Bilow, Roy Smith. These are all outstanding geophysicists, geologists, and engineers but the reason I specifically mention them here is that these were people who held their professional integrity in difficult and challenging situations. For me that was the most impressive and memorable quality. In addition, each of them influenced me or my career in an incredibly special major life changing way and I’m forever grateful for the fact that life caused our professional paths to cross.

Apparently, seismic data processing has been your forte, and you have put out some publications/presentations on using well data as a guide in seismic processing, depth imaging, and more recently you also talk about ‘depth imaging – above and beyond reflections’. Please elaborate your perspective on each of these aspects for our readers.

Thank you for this question, Satinder. I believe seismic processing and depth imaging are extremely important in the exploration process. I also believe that their importance often gets masked or misinterpreted by the complexity of understanding of what vital information they offer. Throughout my career I also witnessed this lack of collaboration between various disciplines. In all my publications I always advocate that the best possible result we achieve with seismic, is only in the condition where we integrate all additional information like well logs etc. Velocity model building for depth imaging should be a collaborative iterative effort between processing geophysicist, interpretation geophysicist, geologist and sometimes petrophysics (when, for example, we deal with anisotropy). The process of velocity model building for depth imaging is so complex, non-trivial and non-unique that it requires all hats and all the info we can summon to stand a chance of plausibility. But it is worth the effort as nothing lets you look through the subsurface crystal ball in more detail than a thoroughly conducted, well log calibrated, accurately and intelligently resolved depth imaged seismic.

I see that you are a member of some of the top professional societies and thus would like to ask how they have helped you in your career.

We of course all know what role APEGA plays in our professional life. I also love our CSEG as it is very dear and near to my heart as I’m a proud Calgarian. I believe for me personally the societies like SEG or EAGE expand the professional boundaries and allow us to exchange our professional expertise within the wider global geophysical community and this ultimately propels the development and progress of our discipline. I also much value the global networking opportunities these societies offer. And last, but not least, these societies offer global mentorship platforms. In the past 7 years I have mentored professional mentees from Canada, USA, South America, Africa, India, China, Taiwan and Europe – this is an extremely rewarding and meaningful experience for me and my career.

Let me ask you a philosophical question. I am reminded of a saying that says, ‘follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly’. Have you ever tried to follow such a thing in your professional life?

Satinder – what a great quote. Yes, and not just in my professional but in my personal life as well. I strongly believe that only passion, and often that obsessive passion, generates that contagious energy that is so crucial in achieving any result whether professional or personal. It is great if the thing you need to do is your natural passion. But even if it is not, my motto is to put that obsession and energy in anything I do as I see no point in doing anything without passion or merciless striving for excellence and success. Plus, the added bonus is that this obsessive passion usually is that golden lever that gets you the best result.

Are you able to spare some time for other interests that you may have, apart from the science that you practice?

A very different type of science called art of dance. Performing Russian famous “Kalinka” dance and song with “Zabava” Russian dance group.

Yes, I am and some of my interests evolved and changed over time, and some stayed constant. Among my constant interests is reading – I cannot imagine myself without a book. I love opera, ballet, and classical concerts. I always make time for these “fatal” attractions of mine. I also love traveling and I take any opportunity to leave for a new adventure. The changing interests were my 10 years in a Russian dance group, my 5 years in a choir and my ever-changing sports and fitness interests. Currently, I go for intellectual trivia nights which I greatly enjoy as it combines a fun atmosphere with the ability to flex your non-professional intellectual muscle and test your purview horizon.

What would you tell a young person considering taking up a career in geophysics? How do you encourage him or her to go ahead?

This is an important and yet not a trivial question. I love our profession and I have always been a big advocate for it. Understandably, current trends in the oil and gas industry make it harder for young professionals to choose geophysics. The good news is, as I always say, if you choose geophysics, you will not have a dull day in your life as our discipline is too dynamic and too diverse for that. The encouraging trend I also see is that our geophysical methods are being utilized more and more in non-conventional oil and gas applications. I see and believe that the role of geophysics in modern and future STEM will grow and expand. I also see the ongoing natural integration of geophysics with AI, machine learning and data science. All these changes are super exciting, and I might not live long enough to see a geophysicist-helper-robot building a velocity model with me, but for young professionals there is a real chance and a fine purpose to apply their brain power and bright energy to greater advancements of this diverse, vast, fascinating, and captivating discipline of ours called geophysics.