The Face of Petroleum Engineering

by | Jul 9, 2013 | 2013 Summer, Feature Stories | 11 comments

On her first morning of classes at Colorado School of Mines in 1977, Ramona Graves walked into Stratton Hall and stopped to ask the secretary for directions to the ladies’ room. The answer she got said a lot about the industry that the young Nebraska transplant was stepping into.

“She said, ‘Go out this door, then one block over and one block right,’” recalls Graves. “I looked at her and said, ‘Pardon?’ There were no women’s facilities in the building. I had to go to the student center.”

At the time, less than 2 percent of engineers in the United States were women, and Graves was one of only a handful of female students on the Mines campus. No woman in the U.S. had ever earned a PhD in petroleum engineering, and those trying to break into the eld faced an uphill battle.

“It was this totally male-dominated culture,” recalls Graves, a sharp, spirited redhead with a reputation for straight talk. “It was not a welcoming environment for women. It is now.” (In May 2013, Mines awarded more degrees to women than in any previous graduation ceremony.)

Thirty-four years later, Graves had become—as Provost Terry Parker puts it—“the face of petroleum engineering at Mines.” Through more than three decades of teaching, she has helped usher into the field hundreds of adoring students from around the world. Her research, largely focused on reservoir characterization and the use of lasers to drill for oil, has advanced the field. And as the petroleum engineering department head from 2007 to 2012, she helped grow the program, building its diverse faculty and shaping the department’s glistening new $27 million home, Marquez Hall.

Today, after six months as inaugural dean of the newly formed College of Earth Resource Sciences and Engineering, the 62-year-old Graves says she is just getting started.

Defying Stereotypes

Born in the rural community of Dannebrog, Neb. (pop. 350), Graves says she grew up “tipping over outhouses and stealing watermelons.” Her father was a mail carrier and farmer. Her mother ran the local drug store. Like most young women growing up in the 1950s, Graves’ career options seemed limited.

“When I graduated from high school in 1969, I had three choices: Get married, be a nurse, be a teacher,” she says.

She graduated from Kearney State College in 1973 with degrees in math and physics and took a job as a high school math teacher. But within a semester she realized, “I hated everything about teaching.”

When a friend suggested she would make a good engineer, she started taking classes at the University of Nebraska to become a chemical engineer. “Women just didn’t go into mechanical, or mining, or petroleum,” she says. But once she started studying chemical engineering, she again knew right away that it wasn’t for her.

It wasn’t until she was doing research for a paper about the oil and gas industry that she found her niche.

“I liked the integration of geology and mechanical, and I loved the uncertainty and risk involved,” she says.

She applied to Texas A&M, Stanford University and Mines. Accepted at the first two, she was waitlisted by Mines, and it wasn’t until the eleventh hour that she got the call saying she could attend.

“It was a Friday and school started on Monday,” she says. “I threw a few things in the car and headed out. My dad said, ‘Good luck. I hope you get a husband this time.’”

Over the next four years she would get married, have two children 13 months apart, and work as a consultant for a Denver petroleum engineering company, all while attending school full time. In 1982, she became the second woman in the United States to earn a doctorate in petroleum engineering.

The field was still booming, and, going forward, she had her pick of opportunities in the private sector. However, the first job offer she received was—of all things—to teach again.

She recalls how the PE department head at the time, Craig Van Kirk PhD ’72, told her he would pay half what she would earn in the private sector, and she would have to work twice as hard. “The one thing I hated to do was teach,” laughs Graves. But knowing almost any industry job would require her to travel regularly, she said yes, for her children’s sake.

This time, she loved it so much she never left.

“I always tell my students, I did not have some great life plan from the beginning,” she says. “I just kept my options open, and I am pretty good at self-assessment. If I did not like what I was doing, I did something else.” 

Three Decades’ Worth of Students

Seated in a cramped second-floor library that is doubling as her office while the new one is being finished, Graves digs through a large bag of gifts from students recently back from spring break, some from the Middle East and North Africa—dates, an incense burner, a hand-woven shawl, perfume.

Students pop in and out in a steady stream to offer a warm hello to a woman they seem to genuinely like.

“She was a bit scary, but she cared a lot about her students and wanted us to succeed,” recalls Vicky Nielsen ’92, a petroleum engineering graduate. “If you come to her office with a whole bunch of questions, she will answer every one, sometimes in excruciating detail, until you understand.”

On the wall behind her desk is a plaque commemorating the creation of the Ramona M. Graves Endowed Scholarship Fund, established last year by former students from the classes of 1989–1994.

Nielsen and fellow alumni raised $28,000 in three months for the endowment, surprising Graves at the Society of Petroleum Engineers conference in San Antonio, Texas.

“They all laughed because they had never seen me speechless,” says Graves, who considers it one of the greatest honors of her career.

She also is proud of the diversity and quality she has helped bring to the department and the school. Today, 26 percent of students at Mines and 36 professors (13 assistant, 15 associate and eight full) are women. Eight of these faculty members are in the department of petroleum engineering.

The number of international students has also soared: The Petroleum Engineering Department now hosts roughly 70 percent of the international students on campus. And its overall numbers continue to climb.

“We see dramatic student growth in that department right now,” says Parker. “Some of that is the marketplace, but some of that is her.”

In September, Graves celebrated another career milestone with the opening of Marquez Hall. Paid for entirely with private funding and designed by the same firm that designed the iconic Apple Store on Fifth Avenue in New York City, it is the first stand-alone academic petroleum engineering building to be constructed in the United States in decades.

“It was my baby,” she says, overlooking a modern, glass-enclosed atrium, adorned with geologically themed artwork that she helped design. “I approved every square inch, including the color of the carpet.”

As she moves into her new role as dean of the College of Earth Resource Sciences and Engineering, she has big plans, and lots of new responsibilities. But there is one thing she does not plan to give up: teaching.