How did you decide on pursuing your degree(s)? Did you know about geology before you entered university?
I have had a passion for rocks since I was a little girl. We lived in one of the suburbs of Johannesburg, located in South Africa. Our backyard was on the edge of a nature reserve which is part of what is known as the Ventersdorp lavas (a basalt sequence). This rock sequence made for some beautiful well-formed quartz crystals that I enjoyed collecting. I would hike in this reserve, collect the rocks, and use my dad’s hammer to break them open and discover the hidden treasures inside. It was only when my grandmother told me that I could pursue a career as a geologist that I realized I could earn money doing what I enjoy most which was spending time outside in nature and collecting rocks. In Grade 10 my mom and I reached out to the head of the geology department at the University of Johannesburg, Prof. Dirk van Reenen, and chatted to him about job opportunities and what geologists essentially do. He very soon put my mind at ease regarding some of the fears I had regarding women in the field by saying that the field needs ALL people and is for ALL people. This convinced me that it was the right career for me.
During my undergrad and postgrad studies I gladly took on any student vacation work or consulting work. My favourite summer-job was at the West Driefontein Gold Mine located in the famous Witwatersrand basin where I had the opportunity to consult with Gavin Martin, who was a leading expert in gold deportment, to determine the percentage of free/liberated gold that had the potential to be lost during the underground blasting operations. After one of my consulting jobs in 2002 I was offered a permanent position as a mineralogist by Dr. Hanna Horsch, a leading scientist at Anglo American at the time. I finally had the opportunity to earn some real money and we agreed that I could continue my Ph.D. part-time.
This ultimately set the flavour for the rest of my career spanning nearly two decades. I was now officially a lab rat as opposed to an extravagant exploration geologist.
One of my wonderful mentors, Nicki McKay, offered me a position as a senior process mineralogist with Teck and in 2011 our family immigrated to Canada. This allowed me to broaden my horizons from the base metals and platinum group metals to coal and base metal deposits with a far wider range of origins, such as volcanic-hosted massive sulphides and variants of SEDEX-type deposits. Process mineralogists speak a unique language that bridges the gap between the geologists and the engineers. Integrating mineralogical data helps us to assist with the design, optimization and planning around all aspects related to mine operations: from exploration, to drilling and blasting, to processing and environmental remediation. There is never a dull moment as a process mineralogist with the incredible range of rock samples, metallurgical products, biological constituents, bacteria, and even dinosaur bones that we get to analyse using our very cool tools such as X-ray diffraction and Scanning Electron Microscopy. I had the privilege of leading our team for a couple of years and gaining supervisory experience. I enjoyed the strategic side of envisioning the future of our mineralogy group the most during this time and it has been such a blessing to see that vision come to fruition!
If you could go back to your first year in undergrad, would you pick the same degree and career trajectory? Why/why not?
YES, most definitely! The only thing I would change would be to opt for more courses in chemistry. Chemistry and mineralogy inadvertently go together like peanut butter and jam. My second major for my undergrad degree was geography and environmental management which I thoroughly enjoyed, and it has given me a much better understanding of the importance of sustainable development.
In terms of working while studying (specifically completing a Ph.D. thesis), I would have completed my studies fulltime before embarking on my career. As we all know, life happens, and it took me a very long time to complete my Ph.D. thesis because of doing it part-time. The amount of stress (including blood, sweat, and tears!) during that time is difficult to describe. You always have this nagging feeling that you must be working on your research, and it is VERY challenging to relax completely.
In terms of career progression, I should have started my career as a mine geologist and gained the operational experience before committing to a career in research and applied science. This would have been more beneficial to my career progression.
What are the three best things about your job/career? What are three things you would change?
Three best things about my career:
The ability to solve problems in a multi-disciplinary team and through that understand how the integration of all the data sets help us to unlock the value of our ore deposits.
The variety of projects that I am involved with are absolutely thrilling and have given me an opportunity to learn about subjects such as coarse particle flotation, the circular economy as well as steel making to name but a few. Some of these projects have taken me to places like Alaska and Mexico.
My life’s mission is to promote mineralogy as a core discipline of the geosciences. My company has been extremely supportive and appreciates the value of this subject which underpins our understanding of the Earth in the way that molecular biology underpins our understanding of the life sciences. This is also why I grab every opportunity to volunteer in the community to ensure this gets taught to young people in school and those about to start their studies.
Three things I would change:
Broadening my network early on in my career and reaching out to other women in leadership positions as mentors. I have come to realize now that I am in the fortunate position to mentor young women starting their careers, that we are all the same. We have the same fears and vulnerabilities (imposter syndrome is a real thing for all of us), and it is important to help each other and advocate for each other. There is enough competition and rivalry as it is.
Seeking out coaching earlier on in my career. It is easy to feel like a failure when asking for help, but this could not be further from the truth. It takes a LOT of guts to ask for help.
Setting healthier boundaries with my work relationships and in maintaining work-life balance in general. I tend to be a people-pleaser.
Why did you become involved with WGC as a director?
What an incredible opportunity to give back that which was so lavishly bestowed upon me. It was with a shock that I realized with 20 years of international experience in the mining industry, moving countries with a young family, and furthering my studies, I have some hard-earned experience and learnings that I can share with other women. Yes, I have stories of people who tried to bully or harass me into doing things that I did not think were professional or scientifically sound, and I have been overlooked for management positions. I do not want anyone to go through what I have encountered as I love my field and am just too determined to give it up. There is also the topic of rivalry amongst women that we do not tend to address as I guess it does not fit the narrative, but it is a real problem. Ladies, we should be advocating for each other and not wasting our energy trying to walk over one another. We have enough to deal with as it is.
Why is gender balance in mineral exploration important to you?
The Geosciences need people of all walks of life, exactly as stated by my Geology professor twenty years ago. We all have different perspectives on the wide variety of topics that we deal with from day-to-day.
Only with a balanced blend in a team can we ensure that we are covering all of our bases and making the most informed decisions.
Decisions that will not be based solely on the bottom-line but also take into consideration the effect on employees, the public, and the environment. This is becoming even more crucial during the times we are living in. As an avid advocate for girls in STEM, I know how important it is to share our stories with girls (and boys) at a young age. If we can help them become enthusiastic about science, technology, and engineering early on in life, we can ensure that our mines of the future will flourish without the negative connotations historically associated with them. We need creative people, both men and women of all walks of life, now more than ever to rebrand mining.
Why should it be important for everyone?
The fact that so many women are opting out of their geoscience careers early on or are not even interested when they are done with school is concerning and is something that should be addressed by society at large. Only with a diverse team can innovation and creativity thrive in any industry.
What advice would you give to young women starting a career in mineral exploration/mining/geoscience?
Participate in courses and other training offered by employers, especially courses related to developing softer skills. As scientists, we tend to lack the people-skills which is essential for a successful and fulfilling career.
Attend conferences. They offer great opportunities to collaborate and learn about new research areas and challenge yourself by presenting on topics that you feel comfortable with. It is such a great opportunity to grow.
Don’t be shy to reach out to someone who you think could be a great mentor. I have had wonderful mentors throughout my life and mentors can be anyone.
Ask for help if you need it. There are some really great coaches around that can help you on your journey.
If your ideas are dismissed or you are taken for granted doing the same job because you are good at it, find a new position. They don’t deserve you!
Last but not least, hold on to the support of family and friends. I am grounded in the truth that it was only by Grace that our family was able to create this new life for ourselves in Canada. Without the help, encouragement, and support of my family and friends I would fail miserably.
What motivates you and keeps you busy outside of mineral exploration?
It can be difficult to balance relaxation with raising a young family, a career, and volunteering. I have come to realize that as an introvert it is essential not only for my own health, but also for the benefit of my family ,to have some amount of scheduled ‘down time’. This could mean relaxing in the hot tub for half an hour with a fresh mug of coffee or a glass of wine and my favourite book or going for a hike with our dog.
Outside of work, I enjoy spending time outdoors in the beautiful Kootenays with my family and friends. I also love spending time with my two daughters, tae kwon do, playing badminton and piano (my creative outlet).