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TWIR, Deep inside Metal Earth: Our interview with the lead project team members

On September 6th Laurentian University announced the $49,269,000 Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF) funding award for Metal Earth project led by a team of researcher in the Harquail School of Earth Sciences. Metal Earth also involves twenty-two partners from academia, industry and government, who combined are providing $55 million in cash and in-kind contributions to this $104 million initiative.

Prior to this official announcement, we had the opportunity to speak candidly with the core research team of Metal Earth: Dr. Harold Gibson, Dr. Bruno Lafrance, Dr. Phillips C. Thurston, and Dr. John A. Ayer. During the informal interview, the jovial scientists talked to us about the importance of Metal Earth, the inspiration behind the project, and shared some personal anecdotes to help better understand the dynamic researchers behind this unprecedented undertaking.

 

Q: Where were you when you heard that Metal Earth had been selected for funding?

All: “We were all sitting in the conference office in the Harquail School of Earth Sciences, when we heard. And once we knew we had it, the Scotch was poured in celebration! The preparation was challenging, but the work is only beginning!”

 

Q: Tell us about the application submission, interview and selection process:

Phil: “There were definite ‘submission night’ jitters. A lot of work put in already but once the announcement came we relieved there is so much more to come!”

John: “After the application was submitted, I thought ‘Be careful what you wish for’! That being said, I’m very excited for what’s to come.”

Harold: “We thought we were received quite well and met with a very positive response from the committee. Our proposal was the only mining related project on the shortlist. The committee was very interested in our focus on Far North Mining.”

 

Q: What is the central research question of Metal Earth?

All: “Why are some areas endowed that are geologically similar to others that are not?

This is the first time a research and development group has had this level of resources to delve into resolving this fundamental question. New deposits are all over Sudbury. Why aren’t there large deposits in other areas? This is the essence of Metal Earth, the how and why, and where?

The Canada Mining Innovation Council (CMIC) has a network of over 30 companies each of which has identified efficient and low-risk mineral exploration as their top priority. Apart from the possible business outcomes for the mining exploration community here in Sudbury and the Far North, we are also interested in mapping and geological survey components of the project.

 

Q: What analogy would you use to describe Metal Earth?

Phil: “Metal Earth is like giving the Earth an ultrasound. It will provide a better more defined method of finding and measuring the mineral endowment of a given area.” 

John:  “We are looking at imaging the Earth. It’s not dissimilar from an MRI; we are visualizing the Earth crust.”

 

Q: Describe some of the primary goals of Metal Earth .

Bruno: A large amount of the work will require the integration of multiple disciplines and skill sets. We also have to think about how we are going to disseminate all of the research findings.  We look to turn The Mineral Exploration Research Centre (MERC) into a premier research centre that specializes in the mineral exploration,

Phil: We’re also aiming to create and sustain a strong research networks. We have Chicoutimi, Laval, Ottawa U, U of T, Calgary, University of Alberta, and a Pan Canadian network if you will, involved in the project. Another goal is to help industry find mineral and ore deposits by directing them to a more narrowed and precise area. 

John: It will create jobs, generate tax revenue, and spur developments in the mining sector.  We are looking to develop helpful knowledge, which will in turn benefit and enhance our clients’ understanding of metal deposits”.

Harold: “Obviously we hope to grow the department well past the next seven years while also learning to better understand the Earth.”

Phil: “Personally I want to take ideas further than we were able to in our previous projects and careers. Especially since two of us had government jobs previously and the others had industry careers. “

 

Q: What is your favourite aspect the Metal Earth research:

Bruno:  “One of the best parts of research like this for me is the integration that leads to understanding from small to large scale, from the tectonics to endowment of metals.

Harold: “Learning more about the Earth’s evolution and how it relates to the scale of ore and mineral deposits. This project will impact our understanding of the Earth’s evolution and crustal growth, scale of deposits and scale of continents, as well as how our Earth works.”

Phil: “I enjoy working with different disciplines toward the goal of ore deposits and mineral endowment exploration. The large scale aspects of this project relate directly to my own work on pre-Cambrian geology, so Metal Earth will help validate that work as well.   

 

Q: You received a substantial amount of money from CFREF and other funding agencies. How will these funds be used?

Harold: Another major goal of this project is to train and develop the talent needed to increase the research capacity required to accomplish the goals of Metal Earth.  A large portion of the funds go towards training highly qualified personnel.

Bruno: The field work aspect of this project requires a great deal of travel and resources. The majority of the field work will be taking place in remote areas.

Phil: “Geo-physics equipment costs for machinery which are not readily available through university resources must be acquired through contractors with the proper expertise and training to operate them.” 

 

Q: Metal Earth is a highly collaborative research endeavour.  How would describe the working dynamics of the team?

Harold: “The scale of this project is unheard of, and therefore it requires an unheard of level of collaboration. For this reason, you need to be down to Earth to survive.

John: “New outstanding findings require teamwork!”

Phil: “The research in our field is accomplished primarily through an interdisciplinary consensus model; we need each other to validate the results.”

Bruno: “What that really means is we need to take multiple approaches and look at many angles to solve the issues at hand”

Harold: “We will be dealing with the cutting edge in fields such as physics, chemistry and data analytics, and this will certainly bring a credibility to our collaborations, MERC and to the Earth Sciences department.”

 

Q: Were you always interested in Geology? 

Phil: “My family had friends in the Geology field and they had a great influence on me. This familial influence, along with my professors during school, got me excited about this discipline.”

Harold: “I honestly stumbled into this. I was an electrical engineer, but always loved the outdoors and after a while I wanted a career that reflected that.”

Bruno: “As a kid I saw a promotional photo of a geologist in a magazine which really struck me, and I’ve been an outdoor enthusiast since a young age, so being a geologist has always felt like a natural fit”.

John:  “I actually started in a completely different field. But I felt I needed to be in sciences. I also loved the outdoors. The love of science and the outdoors drew me away from the previous job.” 

Harold: “Sudbury has a geology pride, especially here at LU, and geology uses all sciences.  It’s an all-encompassing field of research.”

 

Q: When you’re not working on Metal Earth, what sort of activities or pastimes do you engage in:

Harold: “I find myself reading lately, and of course catching up on my sleep. I have also gotten back into painting and drawing.”

Bruno: “Reading about politics, and current issues, keeping up with the news.”

Phil: “Definitely keeping up with sleeping and reading.”