Darren Pais: My head in the clouds - Energy Factor
Behind the energy

Darren Pais: My head in the clouds

Aug. 22, 2016

It seems like a daunting challenge: safely and reliably supply the energy needed to power our lives 24 hours a day, every day of the year. But when I learned about the technical complexity of addressing this challenge, that’s when I knew I’d found my calling.

It actually all started many years ago with airplanes. When I was a young boy growing up in Kuwait, I often found myself at the airport, either picking up friends and family, or on my way to visit family in India. Watching the huge flying machines from afar and experiencing the thrill of riding these roaring engineering marvels made an immediate and lasting impression on me, and got me hooked on the question how. The answer to that question always seemed to lead down the same path: mathematics.

Today, despite being an aerospace engineer, you won’t find me in the cockpit or at the airport. Instead, I spend my days figuring out the how component of ExxonMobil’s biggest questions. How can we drill more efficiently, at incredible depths, to access energy reserves? How can we capture CO₂ emissions by safely and effectively injecting it into underground reservoirs? Can we apply advanced algorithms to guide effective outcomes? Can we ensure people are getting the right information at the right time? It’s about intuitive visualization and bringing a complex system into sharper resolution at every level. That’s what drives me.

At a very broad level, I look at real-time streams of data and study patterns and trends that allow us to do things more efficiently and effectively. But it’s much more involved than that. For example, I study both the zoomed-out level (an entire field with thousands of wells) and the zoomed-in details (an individual well) to understand how the system is pieced together. I watch how people interact with both machines and each other in their work and think about the role of analysis and visualization in improving those interactions.

I got my aerospace engineering degree at Saint Louis University (SLU), where I was fortunate to meet a mentor who steered me toward mathematics, which quickly became a passion. I was able to pull from both math and aerospace in my education. First, over my undergrad summers as a researcher at the California Institute of Technology, visualizing the surface of Mars through newly collected data from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Then, as a graduate student at Princeton, where I became involved in the study of complex systems and the evolution of advanced robotics and received a Ph.D.

The same curiosity I had for airplanes as a kid invigorates my passion for solving complex energy issues. And I’m still fascinated by flight. I plan to get my pilot’s license sometime soon. Strangely, as an aerospace engineer, I can now describe how an airplane works. I just can’t fly one—yet.