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Nalin Shah, Geoscientist at Rio Tinto

Updated: Jan 4, 2023

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

I grew up in the high Himalaya mountains, so geography and landforms were fascinating from childhood. The rock exposures along road cuts and on ridge tops always made me ask questions. My hometown has a very famous geology department and I always wanted to study geology.

How did you land your first position?

BHP was starting operations in India and looking for geologists. I was the first person hired among thousands of applicants who applied to the job ad. I helped to build up the India team and it was very exciting early days of exploration. Our enthusiastic Canadian manager would spread out a map of India and ask where the most interesting geology/ minerals are to be found and we would plan trips to those places!

Can you briefly describe your career progression?

For a career choice, I knew I would not sit at a desk and being outdoors was paramount. I started as a geologist with BHP in India, we were looking for Sedex stye Zn-Pb. BHP flew the first large Aeromagnetic and EM survey by a foreign company in India over 16,000 square kilometers! We were chasing targets in the desert heat of 48°C ! Later, we travelled the length and breadth of India, exploring for iron ore, nickel, and diamonds. I left BHP in 2004 to join Asia Gold, a subsidiary of Ivanhoe Mines, in Mongolia. Mongolia seemed to be the last WILD frontier. The Gobi Desert was what I had read about in books and nothing could prepare me for its immense vastness and stark dramatic landscapes. The Oyu Tolgoi deposit was just being defined and drilled out. We spent many successful years exploring in Mongolia. I progressed from Project Geologist to Exploration Manager to Country Director. I also set up the company’s operations in Indonesia, managed projects in Bulgaria and Brazil. In 2015, I joined Rio Tinto and in 2017 transferred to Canada. In Canada, I have worked in New Brunswick, Saskatchewan, Yukon Territory and Northwest Territory at the Diavik diamond mine.

How has career progression been handled in your company/ies?

For a major company, career progression is defined by the company. They have certain roles and bands, and one progresses along that path. For each role, certain expectations are defined. The employees are expected to meet the criteria set out for their roles. For progression, the employee would discuss with the manager and demonstrate that they are ready for the next level of responsibility. This also applies to employees wanting to switch roles between commodities/ countries.

For junior companies, the career path depends on the individual and opportunities to progress are faster as it is not as formal compared to a major company.

If you had to do it again, would you?

Oh yes, geology is so fascinating, and reveals so much about the Earth. There is still lots to learn. Maybe this time I would choose even more travel to far flung places!

If you could change anything in your career, what would it be?

I wouldn’t change anything in my career, except maybe taking a more proactive approach in addressing gender bias.

What are the three best things about your job/career? What are the three worst things?

The best thing is as geologists is that we are paid to go on adventure trips and at times, to different countries. We travel to areas completely off the beaten path where no tourist would dream of going. We get to use all kinds of transportation methods and handle all sorts of equipment.

The learning is endless and its fun with the people we meet and the experiences we share.

The worst thing about my work would be lack of toilet facilities in remote locations. Also, male colleagues assume that women possess the same physical strength as men and should be able to do the same physical labor, many times is possible, but I have witnessed some women struggling with that.

Do you see, in either your workspace or the industry in general, the place of women becoming more mainstream, about the same as when you started, or worse?

Over the course of years, the place of women in this field has certainly increased and improved. More young women are choosing exploration/ mining as a career.

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

Stay curious and ask as many questions as possible. It’s the best way to learn. In early days, work at whatever project comes your way, it’s all experience. Do not hesitate to pitch-in and work on different aspects of the project. Find a mentor as they are always willing to support and help you in your career.

Why/How is diversity important to you? Thoughts on what should be focused on or how to improve diversity within geoscience?

Diversity is essential in any field. Mining has been traditionally a male dominated field, but it has changed, and women are taking on the roles that were earlier not considered for females such as haul truck drivers, electricians, heavy equipment operators, etc. Australian mines are leading the way in this, but Canadian mines are lagging. More exposure to heavy equipment operations should be encouraged for young women.

Exploration has a good balance, but women opt out of fieldwork/ extensive travel away from home when they take on the primary caregiver role. If companies can help balance time away from home, then more women would continue in the field.

Why should others be talking about diversity and trying to improve things?

Without diversity, any workplace will suffer. People need to be exposed to different perspectives and mindsets. This leads to a better approach to problem solving and finding solutions.

Would you be open to mentoring a young woman geoscientist?

Yes of course. I mentor summer students and young graduates who come to work for us.

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