Thursday, September 29, 2011

Accretionary Wedge #38: Back to School and Beyond

This month's Accretionary Wedge theme, as described by Anne Jefferson at Highly Allochthonous, our host, is "Back to School." The theme is fairly broad, with topics or questions for geology students, geology professors and geoscience teachers in general, industry folks like myself, and all geoscience enthusiasts.

First of all, I'd like to encourage everyone who gets into geology to follow your own path, wherever it may take you. If you are the sort of person who likes to plan things out ahead, do so; if you like to follow your nose, do that and don't look back.

Some people have asked me what industry needs or wants. I can only attempt to speak for the mining and minerals exploration industry, and can't speak at all for the petroleum or environmental side of things. What we "need" in the mining industry isn't necessarily anything a student of geology can plan on. Things change. If you want to aim in our direction, do get into it for your love of geology, your love of minerals and ore deposits, and your love of discovery. Discovery is what we do. Or, get into it for the wonderful opportunities to study complex structure that you will find at every mine and prospect. Structural preparation is often integral to the formation of ore deposits.

These questions,
If you are outside academia… what needs do you see for the rising generation of geoscientists? What skills and concepts are essential? Are there skillsets that we aren’t doing a good job of imparting on students? How important are things like communication and quantitative skills versus specific knowledge about rocks/water/maps? If you could go to a group of undergraduate geosciences majors and give them advice, what would you tell them? What would you tell their professors?
made me think of a few things. So follow a few random thoughts.

  • First, I don't know where geology in general is heading, what kinds of geologists will be needed in the future, or in what numbers. For mineral exploration geology, I do think that in the forseeable future a background in mineralogy and petrology will still be needed, along with increased need for experience in certain types of computer programs (various GIS and modeling programs). Some of these programs can only be learned on the job or through short courses.

  • Field experience is valuable, and will hopefully remain so, otherwise we will end up with a generation of modelers who have never looked at what they are modeling, something a sane world should not want. Although I've seen hints of this type of thing happening here and there and every now and then, senior-type geologists have been, so far, stepping in to keep things on track.

  • The need for good communication skills can never be understated. Today, a lot of on-the-job communication is done by cell phone and email, but knowing how to write a good report, long or short, is quite valuable, a skill that is often overlooked by geologists, a skill that could often be improved upon. At the very least, you will have to be able to communicate to management — people who are not always geologists — why you need the money, why your recommendations for next year should be funded. This communication will often be both written and verbal, the latter being given to groups in slide presentations.

    When I taught Op Min and Petrography/Petrology (including all or most of the basics of the non-lab portions of those classes), my co-T.A. and I required "Rock Reports" about rocks and their accompanying thin sections, mostly to let students practise their writing, and to help them realize they would most likely have to write similar short, descriptive to interpretive reports or memos on the job. We graded down for misspellings of rock and mineral names, and we graded down for left out mandatory rock-report sections (I don't remember what format we used). Spelling is now easier, perhaps, because of Word and Google; good sentence construction is corrected only approximately and often incorrectly by Word.

    A thesis is a good place to get some practice writing in the standard scientific format. I recommend seeking out someone who will give good editorial feedback.

  • Another thing that comes to mind is all the black box type of data collection and data creation tools that are available now, including portable XRFs. These devices in particular remind me of the tricorders used on Star Trek. Point the thing at a rock, and it will tell you all you need to know.

    Well, maybe. It will tell you something. Will it tell you how much gold is in the rock? Probably not, or at least not unless you can already see the gold, or unless the gold is present in ore-grade amounts. (1 ppm Au is often ore grade; cutoff grades at heap leach mines can go as low as 0.003 to 0.005 ounces per ton, which is about 0.10 to 0.17 ppm gold, way below any XRF detection limit I've seen so far.)

    Anyway, the point I'm working towards is that a good geologist will not be out in the field just collecting numbers with any type of device or black box, although we certainly do that with portable XRF devices, PIMAs and TerraSpecs, and various types of geophysical surveys. A good geologist will need to know when the numbers don't make any sense and why. And you will need to know what those numbers mean and what you might do with them.

    For example, if you are going to believe a tricorder that tells you you've just discovered the next Mother Lode, but you don't know how to recognize common and less common associations — minerals such as fuchsite, types of structures including veins, faults, and suture zones, and general and more specific rock types such as greenstone and grey ore — you might be disappointed when chemical (real) assays come back. You will sometimes be disappointed looking for new ore deposits, anyway, but relying on any kind of black box with no way of evaluating the results it hands you is a sure guarantee of disappointment.

  • So, I say, learn the basics, which include rocks and minerals, and learn basic field mapping skills. Especially learn how to find out things you don't know. Ask questions, try to find answers. Learn to be an observer of all things, and learn to look for things that are unusual, things that might seem out of place but are there anyway, and things that might be there but are obscure or hidden by other more obvious features, textures, or structures. Becoming a keen, trained observer will hold you in good stead through your entire geological career, and in life, no matter where you might go.

    UPDATE: Accretionary Wedge #38 is now up at Highly Allochthonous!

    Anne Jefferson said...

    Thank you so much for writing this post. You are one of the people I most wanted to hear from when I set the theme.

    Silver Fox said...

    Anne, thanks for hosting, and for offering such a wide ranging set of questions for Back to School. :)