April 2019

Innovative thinkers

Susan Agar: Resilience transcends the boundaries of progress
Michele Cowart / World Oil

Susan Agar grew up in the UK, 40 mi northeast of London, near the town of Chelmsford. Her mother was a strong role model, who was fueled by a propensity for math and an agility for cricket. These calculating skills would later foster her non-conformist attitude, entrepreneurial spirit, and strength to raise four children. “From her, I learned to speak truth to power,” reflects Dr. Agar. “She was courageous for her time.”

Dr. Agar’s father also excelled in math. He was an electrical engineer, who worked in defense research. He and young Susan spent many weekends experimenting in the family’s workshop, designing rockets, mixing explosives and building barns. “My father taught me the importance of perseverance and not giving up,” she said.

Physical activity was strongly encouraged to balance Susan’s rigorous academic day. She was motivated to excel in piano, field hockey and, naturally, the tetrathlon. Her focus on success lead her to receive a BS degree in science, with honors, in geology and computer science from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, UK. Although she was independent, she would not succeed on her own. “There were a handful of faculty members, who gave their time generously to provide guidance.” In addition, her aunt, a science professor at Cambridge, influenced Susan to face adversity in the academic field. “I continue to learn from all of my colleagues—listening is key.”

After Dr. Agar’s postdoctoral research fellowship with the University of Leeds, she joined the faculty of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. “It was a fortuitous connection, one of several that have shaped my career,” said Dr. Agar. Teaching bright minds, leading international research programs and fundraising with alumni offered many connections. In addition, her research led to an engagement with the Ocean Drilling Program and marine research cruises in a U.S.-Russian scientific cooperative. In all, Dr. Agar has worked in over 25 countries. “As a geoscientist, I’ve had the opportunity to see corners of the world in ways that few others get to experience,” she said. 

This level of advancement and opportunity does not come to the faint of heart. Certain qualities and characteristics are necessary in your career, including “demonstrating sound judgement that is in the general interest of your company, building and maintaining respect, adhering to your values, focusing on excellence and having the courage to fail,” said Dr. Agar. “Let us be reminded that having a sense of humor is important.”

Traditional hierarchical and siloed organizations frequently impede innovation. “There is much value to be gained through streamlined and flexible organizations positioned to capture, rather than control, creativity,” said Dr. Agar. “Innovation requires disrupting the status quo. If you’re going to do that, you have to be confident, persuasive and politically astute, whether in academia or industry,” she continued.

As an innovator, Dr. Agar built an industry-academic alliance from the ground up, involving researchers from 14 universities in North America and Europe. Now, at Aramco Services, she continues to construct the foundations for a group of innovations in geoscience. “It’s a very exciting time right now for the geosciences, with numerous opportunities to link domain knowledge to artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing, sensing and materials science, and those are areas I’m keen to stay engaged with.”

Ultimately, a life well-lived is about downloading your knowledge and using all that you have learned to guide others on a path to success. “For me it’s not about a legacy, it’s about making a difference and creating beneficial opportunities for others while having an impact on the business and society.”

Dr. Agar was a finalist for the Innovative Thinker category of the World Oil Awards in 2018 and continues to find new ways to advance the geoscience sector. WO

About the Authors
Michele Cowart
World Oil
Michele Cowart Michele.Cowart@WorldOil.com
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