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Rebecca Montsion: Finding your way in this field

Words by Rebecca Montsion

Why did you choose this profession?

Why geoscience you ask? Well, I’m sure we have all heard the puzzle analogy, where the earth is the puzzle geoscientists get to solve. To be honest, and as cheesy as this sounds, that is really what got me hooked. Who doesn’t like a good puzzle? I mean, yes, the pieces don’t often fit together very well and we may never see the full picture, but that is half the fun.

After sitting in a first year physical geography course, hearing about how everything is connected and we can understand earth processes using this and that method, I got zapped with the geoscience bug. Eventually, I was converted to the ways of consolidated, ancient, poly-deformed rocks when I heard about the cool things they do to understand them. What a challenge to try and figure out what happened to the rocks and essentially play an eternal game of ‘find the mineral deposit’? It’s like Easter all the time, at least for me.

What motivated you to get your master’s? Now your PhD?

When asked why I signed up for years of punishment as a poor, over-stressed grad student, my response is: I’m a bit of an odd duck. That’s probably not the answer you expected, so here’s an explanation. Unlike many of my peers, I am one of those strange people that are energized by impossible goals and unsolvable puzzles. Many a night I stare at my ceiling pondering the mysteries of geoscience. I find nothing more invigorating than coming up with a new way to do something or arranging my database into some semblance of order. Yes, it’s true. I love moving data around to keep it organized and figure out what it has to tell us about the rocks we’re looking at.

Anyway, I’m getting far afield from what the question is about: why I signed up for a Master’s and now a PhD. Here’s a more straightforward answer: I am brimming with research questions and I needed to acquire the skills required to answer them. To gain those skills, I needed to learn from people who know what they’re doing, and that’s what grad school is for. In my Master’s, I found a supervisor that was a world-class 3D modeller. I learned a lot during those 2 years and started to gush with more research questions. I guess it’s true that ‘the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know much’. Feeling unsatisfied with my education, there were at least a dozen more things I wanted to know before I joined the general workforce population, I started to look for a PhD.

For my PhD, I made a list of all the things I wanted to learn, applied to one or two places, and picked the one that would support my scientific aspirations best. My niche, 3D modelling, is not well represented in university curriculums so it was actually difficult to find somewhere and someone that could guide me along my chosen path. Eventually I realized that one place wasn’t enough, so I pursued a joint international degree. Now I’m busily entrenched in a PhD, trying to learn and solve problems while maintaining my sanity.

What jobs have you held in the past and how did they benefit your career?

Recently I submitted an NSERC application and was forced to reflect on my past. In doing so, I realized that I have been “in the business” for almost a decade. That is a strange realization since I’m relatively young and consider myself a newbie to geoscience. But, I suppose, that starting as a volunteer in a geoscience lab during first-year set me on my path quite early. Apparently that was a good move, because soon after I started volunteering, they offered me a paid position to take on extra duties. I continued as Lab Assistant for just over a year and then they offered me a position as Lab Manager. I was very flattered, especially since I was only a third-year undergrad. It’s amazing what can come out of volunteer experiences. By offering to do menial tasks, I got the chance to ask grad students and profs a million questions about pretty much everything, I got to try my hand at paleontology, and I got to add some pretty awesome material to my CV. The lesson in this is: free labour, aka volunteering, is well worth the time and effort. You never know where it will take you and how it will help you grow as a scientist.

After a couple of years at the lab, I realized that my interests lay elsewhere. Although this was a great opportunity, I found that lab work was not for me. It was a good thing that I had the chance to figure that out before spending four years of my life specializing in something that I didn’t enjoy. So, as I pondered a change in specialization, I attended classes. By chance, my prof brought in a guest lecturer who presented something that blew my mind…3D modelling. After sitting at the edge of my seat, riveted with interest, while my fellow students snoozed quietly in the back row, I thought I’d volunteer again. Why not donate time to learn about this amazing aspect of geology? Following the lecture, I approached the guest speaker and asked to volunteer. I offered to do anything they needed, no matter how tedious or mundane. The speaker pondered for a second or two and then said “Well, you could volunteer, or I can pay you. Do you want a job?” It didn’t take me long to nod my head emphatically and stumble through an acceptance. This is yet another example of how volunteering can be a great thing.

Following the usual checks, I started my new job in 3D modelling. Despite the small tasks I was given at first, mostly transcribing drill logs from the early 1900s, I was completely enraptured with this new specialization. Finally, I had found an outlet for my creative and scientific interests. If anyone tells you that science is only for those left-brained, logic-focused people, tell them that innovating in science is mostly a creative, right-brained exercise. Anyway, eventually they gave me the “keys to the kingdom” as it were, and I started actually making my own 3D models. At first it was this big scary cloud of information and software, but after a while, I started to see how the pieces fit together. And so began my career in 3D modelling.

I spent 4 years exploring what the world of computer geosciences had to offer, both as an undergrad and Master’s student. I worked under arguably Canada’s best 3D expert and supervisor. They didn’t teach 3D modelling at university then and I was given that chance-of-a-lifetime to get a first-class education. While in that position, I joined a group of young researchers that were putting together a submission for the Frank Arnott Award Challenge. If you don’t know what that is, it was an international competition aimed and getting geoscientists to work together to come up with new ways to explore in challenging settings. In joining the group, I had a chance to work with people from several geoscientific disciplines and learned a pile of stuff that never would have crossed my mind otherwise. It was also the perfect opportunity to see what metal I was made of (yes, pun is intended). With this project, I had a chance to see that I am a capable researcher and that I have value in the world of geoscience. Apparently, I and the team are made of strong metal, because our submission won first place in the competition. Since winning, we’ve been asked to present at SEG, we are preparing a short course for PDAC, and we are putting together a publication. Following our submission, I was motivated to finish up my Master’s with gusto and brimming with positive energy.

Eventually I needed to move on and expand my horizons; it’s important to move around and meet new people. With that in mind, I started a one-year contract at another university in a new city before launching into a PhD. The contract went well and my PhD is currently underway. At this point I’m still looking to volunteer wherever I’m needed, but also trying to tackle big problems like ‘how do we find deposits using modern thinking and integrated methods?’. So far it looks like collaboration is the key, but I’m sure there is more to say on the subject.

So, reflecting on all that, my take home message to young scientists is: volunteer somewhere, anywhere. Get your feet wet. You never know where those experiences will lead you.

What long term goals do you have?

My own long-term goals are to contribute to advancements in exploration and see geoscience become a collaborative community rather than experts working separately in their respective disciplines. My work during the Frank Arnott Award Challenge allowed me to see how integrated geoscience can benefit the global community and improve exploration methods. Knowing that, I am actively seeking new ways to encourage those in exploration to take a broader view and get out of their “geo-silos”.

I recently presented a talk at a Society for Economic Geologists (SEG) conference on this topic. I was overwhelmed by the positive feedback and response that came out of the presentation. It seems that many people share my opinions about integrated geoscience, but they lack the knowledge and tools to apply it in their environments. I found it exhilarating to chat with these people as they explained how they would improve what we had done or when they asked questions about how they could apply our method to their own work. I think open science and communication are the next step forward and want to work towards this global shift in thinking. In my experience, conferences are a big part of that as they allow researchers to communicate new findings and they facilitate discussion about advancements in our field.

Why should young women join this field?

Women are valuable to the geoscientific community because they are generally organized, innovative, and a breath of fresh air. We have many diverse skills that can benefit our local and global communities. We hear a lot about diversity and what that brings to the table, and I have to say, it’s true. We’ve employed essentially the same logic and thought process to geosciences for the last hundred years. Now that method appears to be wearing thin as new discoveries are in decline. So what does that mean for the industry? Well, it means the industry need to try something new, and by new, I mean women. We think differently and in ways that inspire change.

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