Last year, when the Schlumberger Corporation offered Graham Belton a job after he graduated, the CEE master’s candidate put one condition on his acceptance.
“I told them I wanted to work internationally,” he said. “I didn’t want to go to North Dakota.”
His strategy worked. In July of this year, Belton, 25, began a career-track position with MI SWACO, a division of Schlumberger. Soon, the Atlanta native will start traveling to oil and gas rigs around the world as a drilling fluids engineer.
“It’s not what I imagined doing when I went for my master’s in civil, but this is exactly the kind of start I wanted for my career,” he said in a recent phone interview from Pecos, Texas where he is being trained.
“I’ll be working with a great company that will allow me to advance. And all of the work is based in the same engineering fundamentals that I got at Tech, so I’m confident about learning what I need to get ahead.”
Some of that confidence no doubt derives from Belton’s appetite for world travel – a common characteristic among CEE students. Before coming to Georgia Tech in 2012, Belton spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer working on water and sanitation in Mali. Through a CEE internship with Schlumberger last year, he traveled again – this time to North Dakota. Then, just a month before earning his master’s in civil engineering, Belton used CEE’s Mundy Endowment to travel to Cameroon, where he worked with villagers on a water purification project.
Some of his work was accomplished through the Georgia Tech chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB), but Belton stayed a little longer to do follow up. Along the way, he learned that some of the biggest challenges engineers face have little to do with engineering.
“The first few days in Douala [Cameroon] were spent inspecting the existing well and finding out all we could about why the pump wasn’t delivering enough water,” he recalls. “Our first meeting was with the Chinese drilling company. The meeting was conducted in English and French, with the Chinese driller understanding neither. We felt as confident as we could about the situation. The rest of the day was spent visiting casing vendors and sight-seeing in Douala.”
Belton and his EWB colleagues quickly discovered that a lot of the pipes were corroded with rust and that the check-valve built into the pump was clogged with sediment. A layer of clay-like sediment had also permeated the machinery. These were not conditions that would typically menace an operation in North Dakota, but they are not uncommon in less developed parts of the world.
“It was reassuring to see it first hand and know what needed to be done differently the next time. For starters the well was placed on a ridgeline instead of a ravine where it might have collected more water. This was, of course, the only space available but it was not ideal. Furthermore, the drillers had not drilled deep enough and had left without flushing the well. We did what could be done in the four days and, as we left, we could hear that the check-valve was working properly.”
Knowing he would be starting a new job when he returned to the United States, Belton spent some of his time in Cameroon taking in the culture. He relaxed on the volcanic-sand beaches, hiked through the coastal rainforests, toured the century-old Botanical Gardens, and visited a tea estate where the owner had a collection of chimpanzees, boas, peacocks and ostriches. He also sampled a less savory African export – malaria- which prevented him from trekking up Mt. Cameroon, the country’s highest peak.
None of this deterred him from the primary goal of his trip: clean water for the villagers of Douala.
“In my final days, I wrapped up the last of the water quality tests which showed that over 50 percent of them drank contaminated water. It was clean when it came from the taps, but was most likely contaminated from their containers. This can easily be fixed by chlorinating their containers with two drops of bleach for every liter. My local counterpart and I went around explaining this to all of the households, and they promised to hold a formation to educate the other villagers after I left. This was probably my largest single success in working with the villagers.”