When describing her job as global well integrity adviser for ExxonMobil, Claudia Zettner likens it to the sort of advice your doctor might give you.
“If she says your cholesterol is a little high, she’ll maybe tell you to exercise more and watch what you eat. Well integrity is making sure we keep our people safe, and protecting the environment. It’s identifying potential problems and addressing them when they are small,” said Zettner, who earned her B.S. in mechanical engineering
(MECH) from Rice University in 1995.
For seventeen years, ever since getting her Ph.D., Zettner has worked for the same employer, ExxonMobil, in greater Houston – a rarity in today’s fluid job market. “I’ve been fortunate,” she said. “I like my job, I like the people I work with, I’m happy here.”
Zettner grew up in San Antonio, and was the first in her family to go to college. She was “pretty naïve” about grownup things, she said, like education and careers, and visited the Rice campus for the first time with her mother during a rainstorm, without an umbrella. Zettner said: “I settled on engineering. I liked problem solving. I liked math. My father was first a pipefitter and then a machinist. I was comfortable with fixing things, making things.”
She soon developed an interest in fluid dynamics and heat transfer, areas of specialization at the heart of mechanical engineering. She credits Yildiz Bayazitoglu, the Harry S. Cameron Chair in MECH, Andrew J. Meade, professor of MECH, and the late Alan Chapman, who taught MECH at Rice for 60 years, with encouraging her research.
For her graduate studies, Zettner went to Georgia Tech and earned her M.S. and Ph.D. in MECH in 1998 and 2001, respectively. Her doctoral thesis was titled “Visualization of particle dynamics in dilute sheared suspensions at various spatial scales.” She attended a career fair at Georgia Tech, learned of an opening and was soon hired by the ExxonMobil Upstream Research Co. in Houston.
“I was doing drilling research, developing models for hole cleaning and sand transport – very practical concerns for the oil and gas industry,” said Zettner, who remained in that position for eight years. In 2009 she moved to the ExxonMobil Production Co. as a global engineering subsurface adviser.
“That gave me experience in subsea, offshore, deep water and land assets with oil, gas and artificial-lift wells. ExxonMobil gave me opportunities to learn more about the industry,” said Zettner, who moved to her present position in 2014.
As part of the job, she spends much of her time traveling. Though always based in the Houston area, Zettner has worked in a dozen countries, including Angola, Qatar, Malaysia, Russia and Canada. In January she flies to India. “I like going to the field and seeing what’s going on with my own eyes,” she said.
“Now my prime concern is the health of the well. That’s made a lot easier by good access to technical experts here in Houston and by technology. I spend a lot of time on the phone,” Zettner said.
She traces her professional success back to her days at Rice: “It opened up a new world to me. Because of the people I knew at Rice and the encouragement they gave me, I knew I would have a better future.”