Cassandra McZeal: Doing the math - Energy Factor
Behind the energy

Cassandra McZeal: Doing the math

My father instilled in me a love for solving problems. My earliest use of these skills was helping him work on cars. We would work together fixing the alternator, replacing an engine or changing the brakes. My father didn’t put boundaries on me or my sisters, and those moments together taught me that there are no limits to what I can accomplish. If people said women aren’t supposed to be good at technical tasks, or even math or science, my father always encouraged us to prove them wrong. So I did.

I earned a bachelor of arts in mathematics from Southwestern University and a Ph.D. in computational and applied mathematics from Rice University. Now I’m applying math to tackle what’s got to be one of the world’s greatest challenges: meeting the growing demand for safe and reliable energy while also managing greenhouse gas emissions.

What I do is solve word problems — really hard ones! And I do this by transforming a business problem into mathematical equations and then creating novel algorithms to find actionable solutions for the company. I know this sounds a little bit “out there,” but the mathematical equations my team and I work on truly help ExxonMobil expand access to reliable, affordable and cleaner fuels and reduce energy-related CO₂ emissions.

Let me give you an example. Our company needs to make a number of decisions when developing a new offshore resource – the number of wells to drill, types of platforms to produce the energy, when can we get the resource into market, etc. And questions lead to more questions. Examining all of the possible options at one per nanosecond (one-billionth of a second) would take longer than the time since the Big Bang to enumerate them all – by a wide margin. So my job is to design clever algorithms that can provide in a couple of hours the most efficient and effective solution to develop the resource.

Because math is universal, it can be used in an almost unlimited variety of these real-world applications. That’s the appeal to me. The best is when I can take a complex system or process, formulate a mathematical model within the constraints of the system, and discover non-intuitive optimal solutions.

Diversity is a critical variable in making strides in math and the sciences. We need new and unique points of view, novel perspectives. That’s how we leap forward. That’s how we solve problems in the world, whether they are as small as an atom or as big as a planet.

Like my father did for me, I’ve encouraged my own daughters to learn the language of mathematics. As a Girl Scout Troop Leader, I urge my Girl Scouts (including my own daughters) to ignore the constraints that others try to put on them. Be different. Be independent. Be a mathematician.