Monitoring African oil fields – in Texas

Hollie A. Kelleher, ’98 BE

ExxonMobil has hundreds of oil wells churning out crude on the plains of Chad in north central Africa.  The landlocked, mostly undeveloped country could produce a billion barrels of oil over the next 20 years.

Hollie Kelleher is a Youngstown State University alumna.

Hollie Kelleher

It’s YSU alumna Hollie Kelleher’s job to see that it works out that way.

Kelleher, who earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering at YSU in 1998, is a reservoir simulation engineer for ExxonMobil’s production in Chad. Based at the company’s Upstream Research Co. in Houston, Texas, she works with computer models to determine the most efficient ways to keep the wells performing long-term.

“In Chad, what we’re trying to do is to maximize production out to 2030,” she said, describing the massive oil field – 725 wells, each one on an 18-acre site, with a 663-mile pipeline that transports the oil to a marine terminal off the coast of neighboring Cameroon. “My job is trying to figure out where to put the wells, how many wells, and the best way to get the oil and gas out of the ground.”

Kelleher hasn’t visited Chad in person yet. The single mother of a 5-year-old son, she prefers to stay at home in Houston when members of her work team travel there, as they will later this year. But she’s had plenty of hands-on experience in her chemical engineering career so far, starting with her first assignment at ExxonMobil when she worked in a laboratory researching core analysis techniques to access hard-to-reach oil and gas locked in sand or rock.

A native of Boardman, she came to YSU under the University Scholar program founded by former YSU president Leslie H. Cochran. The program awards full tuition, room and board and a book allowance for four years to students who qualify.

Kelleher said the hands-on research experience she had as an undergraduate at YSU proved invaluable when she went on to graduate school at the Georgia Institute of Technology, earning a Ph.D. in 2004. “I remember as an undergrad at YSU, working on a research project on remediation of the Mahoning River with Dr. Jeanette Garr. We went down to the river in old clothes one day and brought up a 50-gallon bucket of nasty, muddy sludge,” she recalled with grin. “It was a fantastic research opportunity, and when I got to graduate school, I knew what to expect.”

Many of her fellow graduate students at Georgia Tech came from Ivy League schools and larger state universities. “Some people were questioning at first, because I was from a school that was not as well known,” Kelleher said, “but my YSU education gave me all the same, fundamental skills I needed to succeed.  At first, I think my professors at Georgia Tech were a little surprised at what I knew.”

Kelleher focused her Ph.D. research at Georgia Tech on computer microchip fabrication, and the work earned her co-inventor status on five U.S. patents for devices that use air-gap technology, as well as an Intel Ph.D. fellowship. She has authored or co-authored several journal papers and conference presentations on ways to use air as an insulator in computer chips.

She lived in Atlanta for six years, and Kelleher says that was long enough to make her an avid NASCAR fan. She tries to attend one or two NASCAR auto races a year and also enjoys outdoor activities, visits to the zoo and the park with her young son. She travels to Northeast Ohio regularly to visit her parents and her sister, Dr. Carrie Priebe, a 1998 graduate of Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine who is now a pediatrician on staff at Akron Children’s Hospital.

(Previously published in YSU Magazine, Spring 2011)