Meet Sissa Stefanowicz – senior palynologist at APT

When she is not immersed in the nature and whereabouts of microfossils, Sissa is a passionate equestrian. This 38 years old Swedish geologist doesn’t only go for a stroll – she rides dressage, jumping and endurance. She even trains horses from the ground.

“I grew up on different horse farms,” Sissa says, “and I have been a horseback rider for all of my life.”

For the entirety of her professional life, however, Sissa has been a palynologist at APT. She joined APT soon after graduating with a Masters in Geology from Lund University in 2008.

“Palynology is the study of hydrofluoric acid resistant microfossils, meaning spores, pollen, algae, and different types of plankton. Those types of fossils are not only incredibly difficult to destroy but they are also found in almost all environments and in large abundances. A single tablespoon of rock sample can contain tens of thousands of fossils. They also generally spread over large areas, either by currents or wind, and are therefore very useable for both local and regional correlations,” she tells.

Back to the future

One might wonder what makes palynology so fascinating, but Sissa has the answer:

“It’s as close as we can get to time travel today. When we go through a section we go through the history and evolution of that spot for the past 200 million years – give or take a few million. And there is always a mystery to solve,” she says.

It wasn’t exactly a childhood dream to become a specialist in palynology, Sissa admits. She considered various different fields of study; biology, engineering and journalism – even librarian studies – before she accidentally stumbled upon an inspiring pamphlet on geology. Having read it, she told herself: “this sounds interesting, let’s do this”, and it took her less than a week to realise that she’d made just the right choice.

“Geology is basically figuring out how the world works”, she states enthusiastically. “The earth is one great big, amazing mystery, and geology seemed like a good place to start to find the answer to – well – everything. So, in the end I guess geology was a compromise between me just wanting to study ‘everything’ to understand the universe. And a small practical voice in the back of my head going: ‘You are also going to have to get a job at some point’”, she says.

Her entry into the APT team was also rather accidental: “It kind of just happened,” she says. One of Sissa’s supervisors for her master’s thesis, happened to know APT, and made APT aware of that she knew a student who was working in an interval that APT was interested in.

“Coming from Sweden, I had a very vague idea about what offshore work and working as a palynologist in the oil industry would entail, but I soon realised that APT was the right place to be.”

A fascinating job

A typical day at work is spent in the microscope where she goes through microscope slides containing fossils. A single slide can contain thousands of fossils – although sometimes there may only be five, or anything in-between.

“I then have to identify all different species in that sample, as well as counting them. My typical day at work might sound rather boring to some, but I promise you, it’s fascinating. Once I have the data, we start the interpretation, which is a highly interesting job. Even though you have an idea about the interpretation while you’re working, you always have to take a step back and look at the big picture.”

Through the whole process she collaborates closely with her colleagues.

“We are straight forward and honest with each other. And this is what I really enjoy about working at APT: The biostratigraphic group at APT is a small and close knit team of informal, dynamic and flexible colleagues.”

Going offshore

One of Sissa’s favourite parts of her job is to go offshore.

“Working in an offshore environment is a fast and exciting atmosphere where I get to see first-hand how my results come into use.”

One might think that the skills needed for training and riding a 1200 kg living giant, and the activities involved in identifying and analyzing fossils of the tiniest, long-gone creatures, are very different.

“Obviously”, Sissa says, “but there are some important similarities too: You need patience, endurance and the ability to collaborate in order to succeed in both.”