Just five years ago, alumna Erin Wagner ’13 was studying geology behind the walls of SUNY Potsdam’s Timerman Hall. Now she works as a geologist for ExxonMobil, the largest publicly traded international oil and gas company in the world.
After graduating from SUNY Potsdam in 2013, Wagner landed an internship at ExxonMobil that turned into a full-time job just one year later. “For the first two and a half years, I was actually working in development, which is where we’ve had a discovery and then you’re trying to basically predict the size of it, so you can decide how much money you want to spend on the facilities and the logistics of actually bringing the oil to the surface. So, I was doing a lot of geologic mapping,” Wagner said.
Now she analyzes seismic data, well data and oil production data to determine the best locations for drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. She joined a team of around 1,000 geologists worldwide and is now responsible for exploration—ranking drilling prospects based on geologic and economic analysis.
“My favorite part is getting to do science every single day, and actually be making discoveries of things that were unknown before. A lot of the time, when we drill in these frontier areas, we’re collecting geology data that’s not just related to the oil industry, but also our fundamental understanding of how rocks are deposited and how they react to conditions in the subsurface. We learn new things the deeper we drill, every single time, and a lot of the geology textbooks, the information that’s in them, was actually discovered by oil industry activity,” Wagner said.
While at SUNY Potsdam, one of her geology textbooks discussed the concept of sequence stratigraphy. “That was developed at ExxonMobil by some of my colleagues in the ‘90s and 2000s, so now I’m working alongside the people who helped write the textbooks that I used in school,” Wagner said.
Wagner attributed her success to how comprehensive her classes were at SUNY Potsdam, and the smaller size of the geology department, which allowed for more one-on-one interaction with professors. “In Potsdam, we just had a really talented department faculty that had years and years of experience and the professors were able to teach us a lot,” Wagner recalls.
One of those faculty members, Associate Professor Michael Rygel, who is also the chair of the geology department, must have seen potential in Wagner from the start. During her freshman orientation, Wagner recalled him saying, “I’ll make a deal with you. You declare geology before you even start, and I’ll make all your dreams come true.”
And that’s exactly what happened. Wagner said Rygel was her main mentor at SUNY Potsdam. “He really helped lay out the plan for me early on…He’s the one that encouraged me to apply to the Indiana University field camp and to do the Nova Scotia class. Without his encouragement, I don’t think I would have even known that those opportunities were out there until I had missed the deadline…He just really helped to keep me on track with the types of experiences that I should apply for,” she said.
The summer after her freshman year, Wagner joined Rygel and other geology classmates on a 10-day trip to examine the geology of Nova Scotia’s Bay of Fundy—an influential experience that gave her the geology bug. “That was the first time I had ever actually been out on the outcrops, and seen things outside of the textbooks,” Wagner recalled.
Later, Wagner completed a six-week field camp through Indiana University that turned out to be one of her most important steps as an undergraduate. The summer after her sophomore year, she headed out west, where she witnessed massive rock formations for the first time in Montana and Wyoming. She navigated over the rocks where she collected data points and made maps and geologic cross sections along the way.
She admits that her first few maps were not the greatest, but working in the field helped prepare her for future challenges. “I had to kind of drink from a fire hose to figure out what I was doing. And by the end, I nailed the final cross section that I had to make…It kind of set the tone for the rest of my education. Just because I don’t understand something right away, I can work at it and understand it, and at the end, be good at it,” Wagner said.
The six-week field camp was so important to her, that she recently set up a scholarship for current SUNY Potsdam students—making her the youngest major donor in SUNY Potsdam’s history. “I saw a lot of my friends in the department, who were really talented geologists and really wanted to go to field camp, and wanted to go to graduate school, who weren’t able to go to field camp because of the financial burden,” Wagner said.
In addition to establishing the Erin Wagner ’13 Field Camp Experience Scholarship, she offered advice to current students. She said SUNY Potsdam has many resources to help students along the way. “One of the most important things for me was finding a mentor. So, if a student feels like they’re struggling, and they’re not really sure what they want to do with their career…I would say find someone, whether it’s a professor or another adult that you look up to, or even maybe an older student, and get yourself a mentor,” she said.
During SUNY Potsdam's Alumni Reunion Weekend in July, Wagner made the trip back to campus to receive the 2017 Rising Star Award from the SUNY Potsdam Alumni Association. The Rising Star Award is presented to an alum who has demonstrated outstanding professional achievement in the first decade following graduation. Wagner was recognized for her outstanding accomplishments so early in her career, as well as for her generosity in establishing a new scholarship to help current SUNY Potsdam geology students.
For more information about the Department of Geology, please visit: https://www.potsdam.edu/academics/majors/geology