Meet Olga Reyes Valdes: Whale Topsides HSSE Lead
Olga Reyes Valdes has been awarded The Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Award – Most Promising Engineer, PhD at 2022 Great Minds in STEM (GMiS) conference. GMiS has recognizes the achievements of America’s top engineers and scientists from the Hispanic community. These STEM leaders, innovators and champions represent the best and brightest minds our nation has to offer. They are symbols of Hispanic contributions at the highest levels of academia, government, military and corporate America. HENAAC award winners are proof that the Hispanic community is capable of stepping up to the leadership roles that the new demographics position demands.” Read how this student from Colombia came to be the HSSE Lead for the Whale project, a $5bln deep-water development in the U.S Gulf of Mexico, located 10 miles from the Shell operated Perdido platform and approximately 200 miles southwest of Houston.
Olga learned at a young age: the only way to succeed is through education.
Born in Bucaramanga, Santander, Colombia, as the youngest of three siblings, Olga was raised by her mother after her parents divorced when she was six. Her mother held down two jobs while working toward a degree in business administration in order to send the children to private school. The message her mother sent was clear: the only way to succeed is through education. Olga absorbed that lesson and developed a high degree of self-sufficiency as she, her 14-year-old brother and her 10-year-old sister helped with household tasks while their mother worked and studied.
Her brother, Jorge, became a paternal figure to Olga when he was very young. He took her on his bike to school and when Olga started playing competitive table tennis, eventually becoming part of the Colombian junior table tennis team, he took her to practice every afternoon. When her mother lost her job just as Olga started high school, Jorge had to interrupt his college studies toward an engineering degree to work and help pay for Olga’s schooling.
Fortunately, table tennis also helped. A scholarship from the State (Santander) Table Tennis Federation paid for her second and third years in high school. She, in turn, found a way to, “give back to the universe,” by coaching children from low-income families in table tennis.
Table tennis and chemical engineering
Always the best math student in her class, Olga decided early to pursue an engineering path, but which one? Civil? Mechanical? Electrical (the choice her older brother had made)? Olga finally chose chemical engineering because she did well in chemistry and recognized that chemical engineering would be applicable to a wide range of fields.
Olga attended the Universidad Industrial de Santander to earn her BS degree, funded in the most part by a table tennis scholarship. As a sophomore, she was named the university’s “Athlete of the Year.” Again, her brother was a major support. When she missed classes to attend table tennis tournaments, Jorge helped her catch up with calculus and physics. She credits him for enabling her to be prepared for exams and keep a strong GPA even with her athletic commitments.
Her way of giving back was to serve as a counselor for freshman camp during her senior year, helping first year students during their orientation and first semester on campus.
During her undergraduate studies, Olga participated in an exchange program with Texas A&M University to do research at the Mary Kay O’Connor Process Safety Center. Her project focused on dust explosions. The research was applicable to a lot of industrial settings, but she began to notice how many of the best students at the Mary Kay O’Connor Center chose to work at Shell. That observation inspired her to return to Texas A&M for graduate studies with her sights set on a career at Shell.
A difficult decision: stay in Colombia to be with her mother, or continue her academic path in Texas?
But in 2011, just as she was accepted into a direct bachelor’s-to-Ph.D. program at Texas A&M, her mother was diagnosed with cancer. She faced a difficult decision: stay in Colombia to be with her mother, or continue her academic path in Texas? Because Olga had been granted a graduate assistantship that would cover all tuition costs plus a $2000 monthly stipend, they decided together that the financial support she would be able to provide for her mother – even as a student – would be more beneficial than the emotional support she could offer by staying home.
At Texas A&M, Olga decided to continue working on Process Safety. She made outstanding contributions to the field of process safety in the oil industry with more than 10 peer-review publications during her graduate program. Including the first process safety article featured as a cover article in the AIChE Journal. Another of her publications, based on her thesis work on the behavior of organic peroxides under rising temperatures and pressures, was among the top 10% most cited engineering articles published that year. She continued to find ways to give back to the universe, primarily as a mentor to undergraduate students working on undergraduate research.
Throughout, she remained a competitive table tennis athlete, serving as captain of the Texas A&M women’s table tennis team.
Olga had not veered from her intent to pursue a career at Shell.
As a graduate student, she had internship offers from both Shell and ExxonMobil. “The culture at Shell made it a very easy choice,” she says. During the summer 2015 internship, she led an interdisciplinary team to demonstrate that the pre-startup of Shell’s Stones project (the world’s deepest oil and gas project, operating in around 9,500 feet of water in an ultra-deep area of the US Gulf of Mexico) complied with the process safety requirements of Shell’s Asset Integrity Process Safety Manual.
Upon graduation, she was hired by Shell as a Project HSSE (Health, Safety, Security and Environment) Advisor for deepwater projects, working first on a smaller project on an existing platform. At the same time, she became a reviewer for various peer-reviewed technical journals in the area of process safety.
Seeking more responsibility, she asked to be put on a greenfield project and was assigned to develop the safety case for the design of Vito, a greenfield mega-project, as the support to the topsides HSSE lead on the project. In late 2018, she and her husband Michael Armstrong welcomed the birth of their daughter Amelia; when Olga came back from maternity leave, she learned that the topsides HSSE lead role was available on the Whale project, a new mega-project that would be a replication of the Vito project. She raised her hand.
“It was a role that typically would have gone to a much more senior person,” she recalls. “But I had the Vito experience and I had my boss’s support.” While she was initially assigned to the role on a temporary basis “until they found the right senior person for the role,” after a few months Olga was promoted into the position on a permanent basis. She has been the project topsides HSSE lead since 2019. That same year, Olga also finished the Shell Advance Technical Program, and in 2020 she became a Shell Technical Authority (TA3) for Technical Safety.
A steep learning curve
“It was a steep learning curve,” she says. “I had to manage the contractors who were doing the design, so in every interaction I said to myself, ‘what can I learn from this person?’ I came at the tasks with a can-do attitude, built credibility, and learned quickly.”
Olga also notes that her love of learning – inspired by her mother’s guidance and example – has been valuable.
“I’ve had to understand other disciplines and be able to quickly grasp concepts at a high level, and then be able to speak the language of those disciplines when communicating with both operations and management within the organization.”
Olga’s work has been recognized repeatedly within Shell in her performance ratings and also in the Shell Stations pave makers Instagram where she was highlighted as “the best of Hispanic female leadership at Shell, working to be a true advocate for Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity”
She notes that her husband, Michael, is her biggest cheerleader. “He always says, ‘You can do this! Just say yes!’” she explains. “I know I always have his support. We don’t believe in traditional gender roles. He doesn’t say he ‘helps’ around the house – he sees it as his role as much as mine.”
Both Olga and Michael are very involved parents and cherish the time they spend with their daughter. “We have a non-cellphone rule when we are with her,” Olga points out. “We read at least five books to her every night, and we love going to the science museum, children’s museum, Houston zoo, and other experiences.”
Now four years old, Amelia loves Legos, magnets, princesses, and dinosaurs, and says she wants to be an engineer when she grows up. Her two favorite book characters are “Rosie Revere, Engineer,” and “Ada Twist, Scientist.”
Despite her challenging workload and shared family responsibilities, Olga has found time to give back to others, primarily through two Shell employee resource groups, WAVE (Women Adding Value Everywhere) and SHEN (Shell Hispanic Employees’ Network).
Within the WAVE resource group, she chaired the Houston chapter’s mentoring circle in 2021, matching 258 individuals with 26 mentors. In September 2021, she was asked to step into the vacated role of vice president in the SHEN group’s Woodcreek chapter. (Woodcreek is the campus of Shell’s U.S. headquarters in Houston.)
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