Dr. Lima Interview

Interview with Dr. Heitor Lima

Interviewed by Raj Gautham Viswaprabakaran


Dr. Heitor Lima is a professor of practice in the Petroleum Engineering Department at Texas A&M University. His main research areas include deep water drilling, deepwater well design, and advanced well control. Dr. Lima earned his Bachelor degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, MS in Petroleum Engineering from the State University of Campinas, Brazil and his PhD in Petroleum Engineering from Texas A&M University.

In Brazil, when I graduated from Civil Engineering, there weren’t any universities with petroleum engineering departments in the entire country. This was because at that time there was an oil monopoly in Brazil. Only Petrobras could operate in Brazil. Petrobras is a mixed company with 51% of it belonging to the government the remaining 49% under private control. The government is in charge of all the major decisions regarding the company. By law, to join Petrobras you have a pass a national exam. Petrobras hosts this exam for many types of engineering degrees (Civil, Mechanical, Chemical, Electrical, etc.). Those who pass the exam go to Petrobras University. This university isn’t a traditional university, as you would imagine. It is actually a corporate university that is just for Petrobras employees. I attended Petrobras University in Salvador because that was the campus where the petroleum engineering was offered. The other campus was in Rio de Janeiro. In my year, I believe, only 100 students passed the exam out of thousands of engineers. It was an extremely competitive exam. An example how the world is actually very small is that Dr. Alves right next door to me also took the exam on the same day as me. We passed the exam together the same year and joined Petrobras the same day. When I arrived at Salvador, we took a one-year course to specialize in Petroleum Engineering. After this course, some people went to work in Reservoir Engineering, Production Engineering and I decided to go to Drilling Engineering. Ever since then I have been a drilling engineer. We had a good education at Petrobras because even though it was only one year of instruction, it was very intensive. Just like that I suddenly became a Petroleum Engineer for Petrobras.
This is a good question. Petrobras was the largest company in Brazil and even in Latin America by far. It was the best job an engineer could get at that time. In regards to salary, benefits, and overall opportunity, Petrobras was the dream company back then. Back then Brazilian families were extremely proud if their children got a job from Petrobras. Actually, I didn’t even have a single idea what Petroleum Engineering was back then. I hadn’t seen a drilling rig or have any prior exposure to the industry. Because of the prestige of the company, I decided to join it and today I’m very happy that I did it.
Looking at my traditional university education, there really weren’t that many differences between the educational styles of Texas A&M and that of the Brazilian universities.
Of course, when I studied at Petrobras University, the focus was different. The corporate university is representative of the company’s interests. The main focus of the company is strengthening and training their employees for the betterment of the company. However, for a traditional university, the focus is on educating the students, preparing them for the future world, developing their critical thinking skills, and making them good citizens.

After some years (6-7) working for Petrobras, I was invited to return to Petrobras University as a professor. I returned to the university to become one of the drilling instructors. As I mentioned before, here the focus is on the students whereas there the focus in on improving the company’s employees. In the corporate education, there were many opportunities for continuous learning for the employees, and distance learning. For instance, we had groups from our company in Manaus, the capital of the state of Amazon, to explore the oil and gas opportunities there. That area was primarily jungle based and didn’t have a large population at all. But, I was responsible for training people in well control in that area. So I would take portable simulators with me to Manaus and train them and then fly back to Salvador. As you can see it’s definitely different.

One other major difference is that at a traditional university, you have many opportunities to conduct research but that wasn’t something that you could do at Petrobras University.

I worked for Petrobras for almost 35 years. Over those years, I gained experience in the industry and in teaching. That’s why I’m here as a professor of practice. A professor of practice represents the integration of academic education and practical experience. In fact when I was about to retire, Dr. Schubert (a class mate of mine when I did my PhD here at A&M), called me for a professor of practice position at A&M for drilling. I love teaching in general and teaching young engineers makes me feel younger
(Laughter) Maybe my most memorable experience was actually my first experience. After finishing my course in Petrobras University, I started working in Rio. One of my first tasks was to actually stay in a drill ship. I was really excited with this opportunity at the time. As the drill ship was at the mouth of the Amazon River. This drill ship was part of the last generation of drill ships being used so I believed that I would be able to learn a lot. Once I arrived on the drilling ship, I realized how stressful being on a drill ship actually was. It was stressful because I didn’t have much experience to go off of. I had only one year of engineering training from the company and no official petroleum engineering experience. I was the only Brazilian engineer on board as most of the other people were Americans. As a result, communication was a challenge. Moreover, at the end of every day, I had to make a report to my boss in Rio. There were a lot of challenges that the drill ship experienced. One specific challenge was actually the current from the ocean itself. The drill ship was prepared to drill in these harsh conditions but I still had to learn a lot about it. I had knowledge about conventional operations but this was definitely a very special operation. There were times when preparing my daily report was a challenge in of itself because I didn’t understand some things that were going on during the operations. To figure out what was happening, I had to go and ask the guys on the ship. I was at my early twenties and I was new on the ship so I didn’t have the most credibility in their eyes. As such, it was difficult to get useful information from them. So, all in all, looking back, my time on the drilling ship was extremely stressful but I was able to learn quite a bit.

In regards to other memorable experiences, I definitely enjoyed my time at the university as an instructor. There were multiple years were I was honored by the students at the graduation ceremonies. Those are some memorable experiences for me.

Because I was in Petrobras, I was fortunately able to do both. I taught as an instructor and I worked as an engineer. So I was able to enjoy both
When I was teenager, I wanted to be a diplomat (laughter). At the time, I thought that knowing foreign languages, travelling to different countries seemed exciting. I told my parents that I wanted to be a diplomat and they casually agreed at the time. But when I was at the end of high school at around 17 years, I forgot about wanting to be a diplomat. The diligent students in school basically had two promising career choices: engineer or physician. The not so diligent students wanted to be lawyers (laughter). Now the lawyers are the guys making the most money though! (laughter). But basically, I had the three options of becoming a doctor, engineer or a lawyer. So I chose engineering because I never really enjoyed biology and those type of medical related subjects. Till this day, I’m glad I made that choice because I’m happy and content with my career.
To be honest, my specialization in drilling wasn’t really choice. It was more like destiny. After I had completed my course in Petrobras, I had a choice in regards to what I wanted to do. With around a 100 graduates, per batch the management distributed the type of specialization (drilling, production, reservoir) and the location. The best locations were given to the best students. I fortunately did quite well and wanted to be a drilling engineer because it seemed to me to have the most opportunity.

During the oil crash of the 80’s, Petrobras sent some of its students to do their higher studies. So I went to a Brazilian University to do my Masters of Science. My thesis was about riser blowout because of client interest in that area. After my masters, I became one of the well control specialists in the company. From that time till my retirement, I have focused on well control. Even my PhD here at A&M was on well control. I focused on deep water drilling mainly because Petrobras is an international leader in this area. Most of the Brazilian oil production comes from offshore fields utilizing deepwater wells.

Companies are always looking at ways to decrease cost and optimize their drilling processes. This is because drilling is one of the more expensive aspects of the entire oil extraction process. As such, research definitely is important for companies. Students who strengthen themselves with new knowledge about developing technologies definitely stand out to companies. They are the more valuable students especially in time of oil crashes.
When I was in Brazil, I enjoyed spending time with my four grand children. But now, I’m in Texas and they are in Brazil. So what I do here is watch a lot of TV. (laughter) I love to watch movies. I generally watch Brazilian TV but definitely enjoyed shows such as Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Orange is the New Black, How to Get Away with Murder, and House of Cards. When I’m in Brazil, I spend time with my grand kids. When I was working out the details with Dr. Schubert in regards to becoming a professor of practice here at A&M, one of the aspects of this job that appealed to me was that I only had to teach for 9 months. So when there is summer break, I go back to Brazil to spend time with my family.
It all honestly depends. If the main motivation of the student to become a petroleum engineer is salary, then they should really consider something else. Because with petroleum engineering, you aren’t guaranteed to have a high salary at all times. People in the industry know that the industry overall has booms and busts. The new students need to understand that those ups and downs are part of the industry. At the end of the day, the population is consistently increasing so the demand for energy will in turn increase as well. To satisfy this demand, more petroleum engineers will be needed in the future. It is very likely that even by 2040, the consumption of fossil fuels will be at the same level as today. In fact, most of the articles that I have read have generally concluded that oil prices are on the rise again and that we have seen the lowest point of this current bust. Petroleum engineering is definitely one of the best careers because you have a background in engineering, geology, fluid dynamics, and multiple different areas. As such, you can even go work in different industries because you still will gain the skills needed to work in those industries with a petroleum education. Moreover, if you love travelling around the world than petroleum engineering will definitely appeal to you. All in all, petroleum engineering provides you a multi-disciplinary education and an opportunity to work in a challenging and dynamic industry.
Good networking connections are crucial for everyone. Go to conferences, summits to just meet people and develop professional connections. After strong networking, the most important thing you can do is maintaining a strong academic performance while you are in university itself. Try to get as many A’s as possible (laughter). Obviously, in times of a crisis, you need to be the best in order for companies to see you as a successful candidate.

One other good option is to pursue a Masters’ degree. Things will definitely get better so getting another degree will give you more time to ride things out.


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