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Katrin Steinthorsdottir

How did you decide on pursuing degrees in geoscience? Did you know about geoscience before you entered university?

Before entering university, I believed that geology was just about volcanoes, earthquakes and going on cool hikes, consequence of being Icelandic. I took all the geoscience courses that were available in my high school to find out if I enjoyed it. Once I realized that they were both my highest grades and drawing was often part of answering the question, I was pretty sure. And of course remembering that I’ve been collecting rocks since kindergarten.

I did wonder if I was choosing the right path and it all boiled down to the thought: I’m going to choose what I enjoy doing and that doesn’t involve staring at a computer screen all day!

If you could go back to your first day in undergrad, would you pick the same trajectory?

I did my undergraduate in Iceland with one year as an exchange student in Switzerland. A huge benefit of studying geology in central Europe is the Alps in the backyard and doing mapping between countries. The whole experience was a lot of fun and I met some great people on the way. The only thing I wish I had done differently was not fall asleep so often in first year chemistry.

I got a summer job with the volcanology group in the department and fell in love with volcanoes even more, did my bachelor thesis on a phreatomagmatic eruption in Grímsvötn, which then led me to a volcano monitoring internship in Mexico after graduation. Even though I have now chosen a different path in geology I’m grateful for having that under my belt.

What is your thesis on and what excites you the most about it?

I’m doing a master’s in geology at the University of British Columbia (UBC) with a group that looks at carbon sequestration in ultramafic mine tailings. For my thesis I’m looking at a nickel deposit in central BC. It’s a petrological study of hydrothermal and serpentinization processes that formed awaruite, a nickel alloy that’s never been mined before, and brucite, a mineral that reacts readily with CO2.

This work is so great because I can look at rocks all day and I’ve been lucky to be able to work with people from the industry, the geological survey and some engineering students. It is so exciting because this work will help make a carbon neutral mine, possibly one of the first in the world.

What kind of career do you envision having? 5 years from? 10 years? 20 years?

I know I need to work on something that I’m passionate about and to make some positive change. That could either be work like my current study in carbon sequestration or something like geothermal energy. Five years from now I can imagine I’ll still be here in Vancouver working with companies to assess carbon sequestration potential of new deposits. In the next 10 or 20 years, I guess I’ll move around a bit, maybe go back home to Iceland, maybe a new place. I’m open to a lot of things and excited to what the future holds.

If you could change anything about geoscience, the exploration industry, etc, what would be the top three things?

- Have a more diverse group and a wider representation of people e.g. in company directors, teachers, industry advertisements.

- Change the typical stereotype of a geologist from a white man, holding a heavy backpack, tracking through the wilderness to something more diverse and gender neutral.

- That individual people, and groups, believe that they can make a difference and then would act on working towards lowering the gender gap. Because if we all did, we would.

What advice would you give young women starting a degree in geoscience?

To think about what you are most passionate about and follow that path. There are so many different areas of geoscience and the different opportunities are out there in the world. Also, don’t doubt yourself, speak up if you want to, apply for the job even though you think you’re not qualified and rock on (pun intended).

Do you see gender balance at the university? If so, what do you think is different at the university compared to in industry?

I don’t know the statistics in the department but it seems to be fairly equal in the undergraduate and graduate programs. In the higher faculty positions, I doubt it’s as equal but I think the right attitude is there but it will just take a few more years to reach the balance. In the industry there are the same barriers as in the rest of society. I’ve heard many people mention that there might be such a huge gender gap in this industry because of long field work. Of course this could be some part, but there are so many more jobs in geoscience that I believe it’s a systematic social problem. Also, if the main reason for women leaving the industry is because of these long field work then we all, individuals, companies and academia must come together, open up the discussion and find solutions.

Why should gender balance be important to everyone?

Because it affects all of us today and the next generations, from representation in the news to who gets promoted. Even in Iceland, which has the lowest gender gap in the world 10 years running things are not nearly perfect yet, so there’s a long way ahead everywhere. It’s a sobering thought that we haven’t reached a more balanced world but we still have to remember how far we’ve come from the days of 100 or even just 5 years ago.

Simply put, like Natalie Portman said “When you light someone else’s torch with your own, you don’t lose your fire, you just make more light and more heat.”

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