Clean lab break: Exploration geology in Canada

Many of us have wondered at some point how we might use our geochemistry degree outside of the familiar environment of academia. Here, Ayesha Landon-Browne, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, gives us a peek into what it’s like to work as an exploration geologist in Canada.

Hi Ayesha, can you quickly introduce your academic background?

Hi! My PhD research utilizes non-traditional stable isotopes (Fe, Pt) to infer source systematics of Archean mantle derived rocks and how this can be influenced by large scale geological events. Prior to this, I completed a BSc in Chemistry and Earth Sciences at Carleton University and an MSc at the University of Ottawa, both in Canada. My MSc research focused on the analysis of Neoarchean ferropicrites for their short-lived isotopic composition and the insights this can give us into the formation of their mantle source.

How did you get to work in exploration geology? And how does that fit in with your work as a research student in isotope geochemistry?

My first exposure to exploration geology was after I completed my MSc, before I started my PhD. Prior to this, I had always worked positions that were research orientated, such as being a laboratory assistant for an isotope lab at Carleton and a research assistant at the Geological Survey of Canada. My MSc research, and now my PhD research, focus on early Earth, and there is not much of a link between this and the exploration industry (other than some old rocks host mineral deposits). However, I do not look at this as a bad thing. I know that I am extremely fortunate to be able to pursue my academic endeavours and to also gain experience in exploration geology. I think having further education in the Earth Sciences have allowed me to develop my analytical skills to a higher level, and apply this to my work as a geologist. I can look at a data set critically and understand the need for high quality data that can be imported into modelling programs to constrain the deposit. The field skills from exploration will allow me to be more confident if I undertake fieldwork during my PhD or demonstrate on courses to undergraduate students.

So, where were you sent out in the field? What was a typical day like?

I have worked on the west coast of Canada, in an Au-Cu porphyry deposit in British Columbia, and most recently on an Ag-Pb-Zn deposit in central Yukon. In terms of what we do, it can vary, we can be logging core, out in the field soil sampling,mapping and prospecting, or conducting geophysical surveys. We usually work in a rotation schedule, where we are in camp for 2-4 weeks and then have a break of ~2 weeks. When we are in camp, we are working 7 days a week, 11 hours a day. The drills turn 24/7, with a day-shift and a night-shift, but geologists do not have to work during the night.

The project I am involved with in the Yukon is a drill program, where diamond drills collect drill core from holes that can go as a deep as 1000m. As a logging geologist I look at this rock core and log the core for its lithology, alteration, and mineralization. We also take structural measurements on the core, and sample anything we think is interesting or shows mineralization.

A typical day starts with a trip to the drills to collect any core the night shift has produced, and we take this back to the core shack where we lay it out on the benches. We typically have one geologist and one geotechnician per drill but, if necessary, we all work together to help each other out. After logging the core, we move it out of the core shack, either to be cut into half by the core cutters if we have selected it for sampling, or to core storage. We try to keep up with our drills, and sometimes making several trips to the drill per day.

When we have reached the end of a hole, there is some downtime whilst the drill is preparing for the next hole. As a geologist, we are responsible for locating the new drill pads, and ensuring that the pads are built to accommodate the drill. When we have downtime, we are constantly checking the data that we have produced from logging for errors – most of the logging is done using a logging program, but sometimes issues occur. We also look at old core logs to check for consistency with the program’s protocols and update this if necessary.

How did you navigate being a woman in that environment? Any specific challenges?

There is a noticeable lack of women in the exploration industry, but this is getting better. I have worked on geological teams with a majority of women, but on other projects with few women. As a woman, being aware of your environment is probably the most important advice I can give. Fortunately, I have met some amazing women geologists in the field, and we have banded together and we can now lean on each other for support even if we are not working together anymore.

What did you enjoy about this job? And, on the contrary, what would you say are the downsides? Overall, what did that experience bring you?

There is such an adrenaline rush with exploration geology. I am certainly someone who feeds off my environment and in this job there is always something happening! The thing I enjoy the most is being able to open the door of the core shack and have this amazing view of the mountains. There are times when we are drilling and we hit something unexpected and that makes it more fun, or we put the drill in a new area, and we are not too sure what to expect. It is that sense of unknown that really makes it an enjoyable experience, and the fact that we could find a mineral deposit that could go towards resources of the future, including those necessary for greener energy, such as production of batteries for electric cars or magnets for wind turbines.

In terms of downsides, there are definitely a few. Exploration camps can be remote so bad internet connections and outhouses are a common sight. When it comes to break time, I am quite excited to be able to use the modern amenities that I am so used to. Using an outhouse at -40 is about as enjoyable as it sounds, especially in a windstorm! I would also have to say that there have been times when I have woken up at 2am in the winter to line up a drill and I am questioning my sanity at that point. I think my biggest take away is go with the flow. Things happen that are not always in your control. When working in remote areas it can take several days for a part to come in, and you have to make-do whilst you are waiting.

I believe that every geologist should have a chance to try out exploration, and then make their own decision on whether they like it or not. As I gain more responsibility, I am now training junior geologists and I want to give them skills to help them succeed whether they choose to continue their career in exploration or not. Fieldwork gives many opportunities to learn skills that are not taught in school. This can be things such as hiking in mountainous terrain and learning how to fix drills and vehicles. I suggest making the most of such opportunities. Do not be afraid to ask if you can go out and try something. If your expected tasks are completed and there’s downtime, use the time to learn something new!

What was it like, transitioning back to regular life and to lab work after several months on a camp in the middle of the mountains?

I would say that, by the end of the field season, everyone is ready to go home. After several months I am itching to get back into academia, the same way after several months in academia I am ready to get back into exploration. There can be a bit of transition period from field to lab, but I have found having work goals defined and lab work ready to go helps. This year, because I have to quarantine before the field, I have made sure I have some academic work to do, and whilst I am in the field I will continue to read papers and plan for my return to the lab. I am lucky that the exploration project I am working on re-hires me each year, and even luckier to have a PhD supervisor who is allowing me to gain experience outside of my academic studies.

What would you say are the qualities essential for applying to a job in exploration geology? Did you get a specific training on top of your academic geology training?

The most important qualities are the ability to work hard, question what rocks you are seeing, and good communication skills. The remote environments we work in mean we are out there for 4-6 weeks at time, seeing the same small number of people every day. Good communication is necessary to have a cohesive program and the ability to discuss what rocks are on the bench in front of you.

I think the biggest thing in exploration geology is being adaptable. We work to fulfil the program objectives, but things can (and will) go wrong [editor’s note: I am sure that anyone doing a PhD in Earth sciences can relate!], and sometimes you are in a remote environment where it cannot be fixed as quickly as you would expect. In terms of academic skills, I was not necessarily the most confident in my field skills before I started in exploration and multiple field seasons have certainly made me more confident. The wonderful thing about geology is that one rock can yield multiple interpretations and it is the discussion of these interpretations that makes it so fascinating.

My BSc certainly equipped me in terms of the academic foundations that I needed for exploration, however the tasks, such as logging, soil sampling, geophysical surveying, are not exactly what is taught in an academic setting. Fortunately, at my first job I had a boss who took the time to train me and made sure I understood the how to conduct an exploration program. You are using academic knowledge to identify rocks and minerals, and field skills from mapping courses to produce geological maps and cross sections.

In terms of background, most geologists have a BSc, and having an MSc is now becoming more common. Most people with a BSc start out as a junior geologist where they are doing a mix of core logging and geotechnical work, as well as out in the field soil sampling and helping to run geophysical survey. Having experience in as many aspects of exploration will make you a diverse candidate for further opportunities and shows that you are willing to work in various roles.

Any advice you would give to anyone who would be interested in giving it a try?

Network, network, network! Do not be afraid to reach out to people who have experience in a field that you want to try out. They may not have any leads on a job front, but they may have insight into how to tailor your resume for applications or various companies you can apply to. Attend events that are made for young professionals, join organizations such as Women in Mining, Young Mining Professionals etc. There are also conferences such as PDAC (Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada) and Round-Up which happen annually and students usually get reduced rates to attend. Do not be afraid to speak to people who have the job you want, ask them how they got there, and what you can do to make yourself the most appealing candidate.

If you think your skillset is not what a company is looking for, look for ways to tailor your resume. I have a mostly academic background, but when I first started, I tailored my resume to reflect that I was willing to try something new, and that my analytical skills would allow me to work meticulously. This appealed to my boss and they hired me for a junior position allowing me to be experience various jobs of a geologist.

Finally, any anecdote(s) you would like to share  ? 🙂

I always enjoy working with a team who finds quirky ways to have fun, and the team I worked with 2020 did just that! Before our morning core run, we would bet on how many boxes there would be at the drill and what the end of hole depth would be. Anyone with any information would have to volunteer it up, such as estimated end depth or if we had a conversation with our drillers that morning. Whoever came closest would get the point for that drill. At the end of the shift, whoever had the least number of points would have to buy the first round when we got out of camp.

We also did a camp secret Santa, but the gifts had to come from in camp and had to tailored to the person we drew. Some of these gifts ranged from camp-made num-chuks to knitted items. We all put a lot of work and effort into our gift ideas and were all determined not to be the worst gift giver.

Thank you Ayesha! You can follow Ayesha’s adventures as an exploration geologist in Canada this Summer on her twitter (@aylabr) and instagram (@ayeshalandonbrowne) accounts.

If you too would like to share your experience working outside of academia after a geochemistry degree, do get in touch with us! Furthermore, from this Autumn onwards the Geochemistry Group will host a series of career events including presentations from speakers with varied careers outside of  traditional academic roles.

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