On March 29 American multinational Chevron posted a video on Facebook featuring senior technical geoscientist Rhonika Kaplan. In the video, she spoke about 3D reservoir models and touched briefly on being born and raised in Trinidad. When Newsday caught up with Kaplan she outlined a "model" of her journey from childhood in Morvant to working for one of the world's most prestigious energy companies.
How was growing up in Morvant?
I know that Morvant is known primarily for crime and poverty, but I felt pretty safe growing up in Morvant. We didn’t have a lot but we had enough. I lived on a street called Almond Drive, and the Nine-Storey buildings were just down the road from where I lived. I remember growing up playing all day in the street, running races, riding bikes, and roller-skating. I never felt scared or uncomfortable. We were a community, and everyone knew each other and supported each other. Muhammad Shabazz, politician and activist, lived down the street from me, and I remember him hosting community sports days which always brought everyone together. However, as I got older, I do feel like the neighbourhood changed a bit and became less safe in general.
I also grew up attending Morvant Seventh-Day Adventist Church, which also significantly contributed to my childhood experiences and impacted my development. I was very active in church, and I had lots of mentors and examples of successful individuals, personally and professionally, which influenced my core values and principles.
Did you have a dream job growing up?
I wouldn’t say that I had a dream job. I remember wanting to be a teacher at some point in time, but my main goal growing up was to get a well-paying job to take care of my parents. It’s funny; I never asked myself, “What do I love to do?” or, “What are my passions?” It was all about what I am good at and how I can apply it to get a good job. I was good at accounting, so after I completed my A level exams, I got a job as an accounts clerk at an insurance company and studied for ACCA. It turned out that while I was pretty good at it, I didn’t love it; this prompted my decision to go back to school and attend college.
Tell me about that decision.
Prior to going back to school, I worked as an accounts clerk for three years at an insurance company (Royal Caribbean Insurance) and then another three years at an advertising agency (Inglefield and Ogilvy). As I mentioned, I was doing pretty well, but it wasn’t very fulfilling. The software package that we used to input transactions and generate profit and loss sheets et cetera, was not user-friendly, and I clearly remember thinking I can design something so much better.
I decided to investigate the prospect of going to college to pursue a computer science degree. I reached out to a friend, Omar Acres, who had recently gone to an American university to find out what the process was like. Omar guided me through the process and even put in a good word for me at his university, for which I will always be eternally grateful.
What US college did you attend?
I attended a fantastic HBCU (historically black colleges and universities) Dillard University in New Orleans with a full scholarship to pursue a BS in computer science. I graduated magma cum laude in 2002 and went on to study geology and geophysics at Louisiana State University for graduate school. I also graduated from LSU, magma cum laude.
In the Chevron video you mentioned that you did a programme in your junior year and that led to you falling in love with geology. Tell me more about the programme and what was it about the field that drew you to it?
In my junior year at Dillard University, I came across a summer programme called Geoscience Alliance to Enhance Minority Participation (GAEMP). It was a National Science Foundation (NSF) funded initiative to attract, expose and engage minorities in geology. It was hosted at LSU and sounded interesting. The programme comprised half the time in the classroom and the other half in field camp. This was my first introduction to geology, and as they say, the rest is history.
I fell in love with learning about all the different types of rocks, their composite minerals, and how to identify them. I remember going to the Garden of the Gods (public park) in Colorado and being awestruck by the structures and formations and learning of the geologic processes that created them.
How did you further your education in the field?
I guess my performance reflected my passion, and one of the professors who participated in the programme offered me a research assistantship which I accepted. This was a bit of a paradigm shift in my life because it wasn't exactly my plan, and I wasn't sure if this was too big of a jump. I didn't have that foundation in geology. However, I worked hard and put in that extra effort, and that decision led to incredible opportunities. I spent a month in Antarctica for research, two weeks in (US Antarctic research station ) McMurdo, and two weeks collecting data on an icebreaker off the coast of Ross Ice Shelf. I did summer internships with Conoco Phillips and Hess Corporation. Finally, I got a job with Chevron!
When and how did you start working at Chevron?
Several major oil and gas companies come to LSU every fall to recruit students for internships and full-time hire. In my first year, I got an internship with Conoco Phillips (which is where I met my husband, we both interned that summer, but that is a story for another time). My second year, I interned with Hess Corporation, and my last year I received a full-time offer from Chevron and accepted it.
How has the experience been at Chevron?
I LOVE working at Chevron! I’m surrounded by brilliant people who are passionate about what they do. I also really appreciate how multicultural it is. On my team of 14 people, we have a Russian, Kazakh, Spanish, Colombian, Chinese, French, and American with an Argentinian manager. I love learning about other cultures, so it has been a dream working with this group. All in all, it’s affirming to know that I make an impact in this world, and Chevron has given me the opportunity to do so.
If you met a random person on the street and they asked what you do, what would you tell them?
A large percentage of the energy we use to power our cars, heat our homes, and produce electricity comes from oil and gas contained in reservoirs of rock miles below the surface. I build computer-generated, three-dimensional models of these reservoirs of rock to help us produce these hydrocarbons efficiently, safely, and in a cost-effective manner.
What is the best part of your job?
The best part is the people. When we successfully deliver our objectives as a team, nothing beats that synergy. I love that I get to work with people all over the globe. Presently, I’m working with a group in Bangladesh, which means I have either really early morning or really late meetings, but it’s exciting for me to work and connect with people halfway across the globe! Lastly, my job satisfies my passion for both technology and geology. My role allows me to make an impact in this space which is very rewarding.
What is the toughest part of the job?
The toughest part of my job is also the most rewarding part of my job. The problems I need to solve are complex and can be really challenging at times. Additionally, there is always a time constraint. But I love to use my creativity to come with solutions to address these challenges, and when I come across a particularly tough problem, and I solve it, I am so motivated!
In the Chevron video you spoke about working from home. Tell me how has been your experience balancing family life and work-life?
I must admit it was tough at first. I have a five-year-old and an 18-month-old. It was a bit of adjustment to get into a rhythm at home with the kids and work, but we have grown accustomed to the new normal now. Professionally, since we are all virtual, I had to be more intentional in building relationships and connecting with my teammates. Interestingly, though, I actually feel closer to some of my teammates now compared to before, because we are all going through this unique experience together.
How do your relatives in Trinidad feel about you working at a multinational energy company like Chevron?
I think that they are proud of me. I have cousins who are ten times smarter than me. I hope to show them a more comprehensive range of options for a career and be a resource for them.
When you're not working what do you like to do?
I am an avid reader. My favourite genre is Sci-Fi/fantasy, but since covid, I’ve been reading many self-development books. I used to love travelling, and I’ve been lucky to have been able to visit every continent. I’m looking forward to travelling once more so I can share some of these experiences with my kids.
What advice would you give to young women considering a career in geology?
I think it’s an exciting time for geologists with this energy transition. Reducing carbon is one of the main objectives, and there is so much space for innovation. My only recommendation is to learn to code. You don’t need to have a degree. Having this skill will make you much more marketable. Technology is one of the main ways we innovate and being able to code helps you understand technology better.
If you could speak to young Rhonika growing up in Morvant, what would you tell her?
If I had the opportunity to talk to my younger self, I would tell her that she has a lot to offer and that she is stronger than she knows. Even though there will be many challenges that may seem insurmountable, she will make it through. The strength that she is gaining from those challenging experiences will build resilience that will be really important in the future.
And what would your message be to young people today living in Morvant?
There are so many success stories coming out of Morvant. Don't let your circumstances keep you from striving for better. Also, don't let people's expectations control how you feel about yourself. Be brave, be bold and be curious.
If you have questions about careers in science, you can always reach out to me at email@example.com.