Piecing together the story of rocks

Piecing together the story of rocks

I didn’t always want to be a geologist. As a child I always liked science, but I also liked drama and storytelling. Perhaps more tellingly, I loved jigsaw puzzles – piecing together what went together, what led to the next connection, and seeing how each little fragment contributes to the bigger picture. Perhaps this explains how I arrived at the work I do today.

Enrolling in geology was a massive but very lucky accident. A guy who helped me fill out the uni enrolment form was a geologist and suggested I take the subject. It was during a second-year fieldtrip to Mansfield in Victoria when I realised how much I loved it – how you could bring science and storytelling together, assembling the jigsaw puzzle pieces together to formulate a picture of the way the Earth and its landscape has evolved through time.

I think accelerating the translation of science into solutions is the ultimate test of theory.

Fieldwork is an essential part of the life of a geologist. As the eldest child of a farming family I had spent a lot of time on my own. I liked the quiet space. But field trips into remote areas of Australia are both challenging and magical. One of my early jobs was with the Geological Survey of Western Australia. At the time I was one of only two female field geologists working with them, and even in our first year we were expected to do remote field work on our own. While I was able to immerse myself in my work, it could be tough – like lugging heavy equipment, changing tyres on a fully loaded 4WD, and hiding my camp spots to protect my personal safety. There were a few incidents that scared the life out of me – stories I tell now as lessons learnt. I would never send someone out on a field trip now the way I was then.

Just being a woman in the minerals industry was a novelty. I’ve learned to speak up on issues of equality from early in my career. After I married, a cartographer automatically changed my name on a map that was about to be published without asking me. I’ve had to lobby my skills and qualifications for promotion against male colleagues. Looking back now I know I was being discriminated against but at the time I just accepted that was the way things were. Now, as a female leader in the resources industry, I am able to support other women (and men) and people from diverse backgrounds to build careers based on talent, respect and equality.

Sandra occhipinti in the field. The landscape is arid and covered by rocks.
Sandra Occhipinti in the field. Credit: Dr Sandra Occhipinti

One of my first eureka moments occurred when I was part of a team looking for gold for a large mining company. Piecing together the data was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. We essentially created a treasure map. I like how stories from the landscape are revealed when uncovering the geology of the region – for example, where gold might have formed and where it had been deposited. Unearthing clues to the proverbial “pot of gold” or any valuable metal is exciting.

I now lead a team of exploration scientists at CSIRO, Australian’s national science agency. My team draws upon fundamental science and applies this knowledge to create tools that assist the mineral resources industry. We translate science into solutions quickly. We work out what elements can be applied to solve different problems, looking for solutions that can pivot the work that the team have been doing into an application outside of the laboratory. I think accelerating the translation of science into solutions is the ultimate test of theory.

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Australia has an abundance of mineral wealth. Perhaps the greatest challenge to uncovering this bounty is the cover which disguises the treasure beneath the surface. The ancient landscape has evolved over millennia and natural processes have weathered and changed the surface, obscuring the mineral systems underneath.

What’s the next big thing? We are now applying advanced digital techniques to our traditional exploration methods. Things like machine learning and artificial intelligence are helping us integrate large amounts of data to help us “see” beneath thick cover and find new exploration targets.

With the world embracing a move towards renewable energy technologies, we are seeing an increase in demand for the raw materials required to manufacture them. This is an exciting opportunity for Australia. To be part of a global transition to low-emissions technologies we will need more minerals – and different minerals – to be mined to produce the batteries, circuits, solar cells and wind turbines to replace fossil fuels.

Piecing together the story of the rocks is my way of uncovering the mineral resources we all rely on in our daily life and for our future.

Many of these critical metals are found in very complicated ore bodies. My team is adept at designing methods that can detect these valuable metals. We are working on new ways to predict the presence of metals like copper, lithium, REEs and nickel aided by our understanding on how these deposits form, what ‘clues’ they provide to their presence in rocks both exposed, and beneath the surface, and aided by varied data integration techniques like spatial statistics and machine learning.

One challenge is understanding the association of many of the minerals and metals of value with things like the texture of the rock. This information is crucial when designing methods to extract the elements of value out of the ore body in a sustainable and environmentally responsible way. Our research has developed systems that provide this information early in the process which is helping Australia’s exploration and mining industry remain productive and competitive on a global stage. Piecing together the story of the rocks is my way of uncovering the mineral resources we all rely on in our daily life and for our future.

As told to Graem Sims for Cosmos Weekly.

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