Strong Female Mentors Push Tkach to Excel in Engineering
BATON ROUGE – Moving from Pittsburgh to Baton Rouge was no small feat for PhD student Mary Tkach. The Pennsylvania native had never lived outside of her hometown until her studies and love of research brought her to LSU in the spring of this year.
Thanks to a joint effort between her female mentors in Pittsburgh and at LSU, Tkach now studies materials science in the College of Engineering, where she calls her research team “family.”
It may seem odd for a geology major to end up studying engineering, but Tkach’s research skills and knowledge were solid enough for the merger. She credits her love of geology to her earth science teachers in middle school and high school, where she developed a passion for Earth and learning how it works and the ways humans effect it.
“They made learning about the Earth so interesting,” she said. “I really enjoyed math, but geology was almost a creative science because it was so visual and dynamic, and I just really aligned with that.”
After receiving her bachelor’s in geology from the University of Pittsburgh, Tkach accepted an internship with the National Energy Technology Laboratory in South Park, Penn., where she investigated carbon storage in shale.
“After receiving my bachelor’s in geology, I was able to secure an internship with NETL, where I got to work with mentors to further develop my scientific understanding of geology and apply it to the oil and gas field,” she said. “We were trying to see how viable shale would be as a place to store excess CO2. We ended up seeing that CO2 kind of destroys the surface, so it may not be a potential route for storage, but for other processes like hydraulic fracturing instead. So, it’s still useful to the industry; it’s just a different resolve than we thought it would be.”
Through her NETL mentor, Barbara Kutchko, PhD, Tkach was able to meet her current advisor at LSU, Associate Professor in the Craft & Hawkins Department of Petroleum Engineering Mileva Radonjic.
“(Because of) them knowing each other through their PhD and post-doctorate work, I was able to get introduced to Mileva,” Tkach said. “She really liked the work I was doing with cement and some of the technical skills I had developed, and she really wanted to bring me on as a student.”
Radonjic was able to secure the National Academy of Science Gulf Research Program grant on the Plugging and Abandonment of Wells in the Gulf, which Tkach is now researching.
“Her research experience matches 100 percent of what we need in the project,” said Radonjic, who is director of the NAS GRP grant. “However, none of this would have been possible if LSU did not have the (Donald W. Clayton) Engineering Science doctoral program.”
“P&A (Plugging and Abandonment) is one method to employ on non-producing wells so that the fluids and gases on the well within the reservoir don’t migrate to the surface when production is over,” Tkach said. “With P&A, you want to make sure that nothing is going to leak out, that these wells are stable, and the pressures are going to be contained for a while. We’re looking for solutions and methods to do a good job, making sure that what we’ve done in the Gulf is safe and stable whenever we leave.”
Besides spending the majority of her time doing research with her team, “who I feel like is my family,” Tkach said, she enjoys her Advanced Materials Analysis class with LSU Mechanical Engineering Professor Wen Meng.
“It kind of relates to the technical skills I was using at NETL, but it teaches the fundamental theory behind all of the instruments,” Tkach said. “So, it’s really cool. It’s definitely thought-provoking and can be pretty intense at times, but I really like the way Meng teaches.”
Another plus for Tkach is having a network of women around her.
“What’s cool is that all of my mentors have been female,” she said. “A lot of the people who formatively influenced me have all been women. Anytime I needed help or assistance, there was always someone to help me, and it was always a woman. It was so great because they were so nurturing and easy to talk to when I was stressed.
“Whenever I would go into the meeting room, the women were always caring with positive criticism. That helped to boost my confidence. Especially in a male-dominated place, you feel that imposter syndrome, like I don’t deserve to be here and everyone else around me is perfect. Having this super strong network of women around me made me feel like I belong. Mileva is such a strong, determined woman who makes me feel like I can achieve my goals. I’m just grateful for all of these experiences that I’ve had.”
Though Tkach loves the weather and friendly people in Louisiana, she is open to moving upon completing the PhD program.
“I’m in the mindset of going where the work takes me,” she said. “If it’s in Louisiana, then I would definitely stay. I just want to contribute where I’m needed the most and can make the biggest impact.”
Contact: Libby Haydel