Dr Lucy MacGregor

Chief Technology Officer, Cognitive Geology

Tell us all about your background and journey to your current role.

I grew up in Edinburgh before leaving for University in Cambridge:  I have a first degree in Physics, and a PhD in marine geophysics: I started my career studying submarine volcanic systems on mid-ocean ridges using marine controlled source electromagnetic methods.   In the late 90s the group I was working with started collaborating with the oil industry to investigate whether the methods we were using on mid-ocean ridges could be applied to oil exploration.  This work culminated in a successful trial in late 2000.  In 2002, I and colleagues from the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) in Southampton (where we had by this point moved from Cambridge) started a company called Offshore Hydrocarbon Mapping (OHM) to commercialise the technology we had developed.  I left my fellowship at NOC to join the company as Chief Technology Officer.  OHM grew over the years – in 2007 we merged with a company called Rock Solid Images who specialised in seismic analysis, and I became CTO of the merged company.  At Rock Solid Images (RSI) we specialised in (among other things) multi-physics approaches to data analysis:  combining electromagnetic and seismic methods to study the earth. 

I left RSI in December last year when the company was sold, and joined Cognitive Geology in Edinburgh in April as their CTO.  Cognitive Geology is developing machine learning based approaches to the management of uncertainty in geological modelling.  This is a relatively new and rapidly evolving field, which makes it so fascinating.


Tell us about a typical day at work for you

The role of a CTO is extremely varied and that’s what makes it fun, so there isn’t really a typical day.    I could be talking to clients to understand their problems and requirements, working with colleagues to solve problems, writing or de-bugging data analysis algorithms or chatting to collaborators or potential collaborators.  I still supervise PhD students from time to time and I’m currently working with a student at the University of Wyoming in the USA.

 Perhaps my favourite pastime in when I can play with data myself:  there’s nothing more fun than digging into a geophysical or geological dataset to find new ways to understand our incredible Earth.


What is your vision for data innovation in Scotland and the City Region Deal?

It’s clear that we have an opportunity to capitalise on a hotbed of talent, enthusiasm and ideas that we have in Scotland – I really hope we can do so!


What are you proud of? What do you look forward to in your field?

What I enjoy most is finding new ways to use data to examine the Earth: we live on a wonderful planet, and we’re still learning about how it works. Digging through geophysical, geological or petrophysical data, and finding new ways of combining and analysing such data is extremely rewarding, especially when it leads to new insights on what is down there.   

In the field of geophysics there are two new approaches that have come to the fore recently:  the first is the combination of different technologies in a quantitative fashion using multi-physics analysis and inversion approaches – this has led to new and improved understanding of sub-surface properties and processes.  The second is the more widespread adoption of machine learning approaches:  this is still in its relative infancy and we have a lot to learn but the technology is promising and is developing fast.


Do you work with any interesting data sets, technologies or analysis techniques you’re working with? 

At RSI I primarily worked with seismic data, controlled source electromagnetic data and well log data:  we combined these using a variety of approaches, including inversion, machine learning and probabilistic methods.  One of the last projects I worked on was a collaboration with the Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre (EPCC) looking at the streamlining of petrophysical analysis workflows using machine learning: this was extremely promising.

At Cognitive Geology we’re developing a number of approaches to managing large ensembles of geological models:  we have many millions of possible models of the earth, and we want to understand which ones are significant (in that they change a commercial decision).  We’re approaching this a variety of ways, including reduced basis representation of the models, representing models with just a few parameters, and using machine learning to find patterns within the ensemble and predict commercial outcomes. 


What do you think are the biggest challenges for women and girls in your field?

At Cognitive Geology, and at RSI before that, we have as many women in senior technical roles as men. Saying that, I think there is still a need to persuade school age girls that science, maths and engineering subjects are for them and can lead to a very fun and fulfilling career.


What would you recommend to women and girls who’d like to be you and do what you’re doing?

Enjoy your subject!  I studies physics because I thought it was wonderful to find out about how and why things work – and I still think it’s wonderful. I studied geophysics because I wanted to know how our planet works – again, I still do. Be curious and have fun.


Tell us a fun fact about yourself and your hero/heroine?

I’m qualified to drive a hydraulic winch…this is a hangover from working offshore for many years.

My hero is James Clerk Maxwell. He was born in Edinburgh in 1831 and exemplifies curiosity and drive to understand and learn about the world.  His contributions to physics were multitudinous across many different fields.  He is perhaps best known for his description of electromagnetism, the field in which I started my career. Maxwell’s equations completely describe the behaviour of electromagnetic fields, and it was this work, built on the classical physics that went before, that opened the door to Einstein and others and the modern physics we use today.  There is an excellent statue of him in George Street, go and see it!

Image of Dr Lucy MacGregor
Picture by Lesley Martin, interviewed by Poppy Gerrard-Abbott

Enjoy your subject…be curious and have fun!

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