Q&A from the experts: In conversation with Dr Sarah Jones

October 20, 2022

After 23 years of living and working in Australia, I moved back to New Zealand in late 2019 to start my own consultancy business (SJGeology Ltd). I now reside in Cromwell, Central Otago and luckily can do the work from home without the need to travel constantly.

I started my working career as an exploration geologist at the Darlot Gold Mine in Western Australia, and after two and a half years, I moved to Hobart to start a PhD at CODES on a massive sulphide deposit in the middle of Vancouver Island, BC, Canada. After I completed the PhD, I moved back to Australia to Kalgoorlie and worked there for four and half years as a regional mapper in the Eastern Goldfields. This was followed by a stint as a consulting structural geologist for RSG Ltd., then about ten years of working as a structural geologist for mining companies, such as Consolidated Minerals Ltd., St Barbara Ltd., and Gold Fields Ltd.

My interest in geology started early, as I was always collecting rocks wherever we went. However, I didn’t start studying geology at university until my mid-20s. When I left school, I started a computer programing course at a polytechnic institution, but after a month, I decided it wasn’t for me and left. To offset the bad news to my mum, I found a job on the way home at Farmers (a department store) in their cosmetic department. I stayed there for a year, then completed a three-year apprenticeship in Typography. Once I started studying geology, I’d found my niche and never looked back.

Dr Sarah Jones in the field
Dr Sarah Jones in the field

Dr Brett Davis: Firstly, thanks for giving Coring the opportunity to interview you, Sarah. Very few people have a career like yours, where you’ve worked across the spheres of academia, government surveys, mining, and exploration, plus gained enormous respect in the geological community while you’ve been doing it. Can you tell us what interested you in a career in geology?

Dr Sarah Jones: I’ve always had a rock collection. Our summers were spent on the Coromandel Peninsula, New Zealand, and my twin sister and I would explore the beaches and creeks bringing home buckets of quartz crystals. So, when I started university in my mid-20s, I thought I’d give geology a go, even though I didn’t have much of a science background.

BD: You did your PhD in Canada. Can you provide a snapshot of what that involved and if that influenced your career path going forward?

SJ: My PhD was on a volcanic-hosted massive sulphide deposit at Myra Falls on Vancouver Island, Canada. The mine, which is over 100 years old, is in a beautiful part of the Strathcona National Park. The study was based on data from underground mapping, core logging and field mapping. The PhD made it possible to pursue a technical path for the rest of my career that started with regional mapping with GSWA, then in the industry as a structural geologist.

BD: One of the things that I admire about you is the regularity with which you publish in peer-reviewed international geology journals. Many people in academia haven’t got a publishing record as you have. What motivates you and what are the more onerous aspects of publishing while working in industry?

SJ: Working in the industry has provided excellent access to the deposits and the people who work closely with them (resource, mine and exploration geologists). This has given me a different perspective on documenting the geology. I feel that when you have a good story, it should be published to build our collective knowledge. As I prepare my company’s technical reports, I try to write them in a way that can be later turned into a published paper. The aim of the papers is to highlight the practical aspects that can be of use in exploration or deposit geology later.

The onerous aspect is of course the time spent during the weekends turning the reports into paper manuscripts and the ongoing revision of manuscripts. It’s worth it though when you finally get one published. I’m also grateful that I’ve worked with management and companies that have allowed me to publish.

BD: Typically, geologists enter the minerals industry in junior roles and work their way to retirement by culminating in management roles or joining a company board and sitting back and collecting director’s fees. You don’t seem to have aspired to follow that route. Would I be right in assuming you still prefer to do geology?

SJ: I’ve always been driven by my love of geology, and I know I’d be no good at managing people, so it was a natural choice to stick with the technical roles. That’s why I left the industry to do a PhD which certainly helped me stay with the technical geology roles.

BD: You made major contributions to the geological understanding of Western Australia during your time with the Geological Survey of Western Australia. What were the important things you took from that job when you transitioned into the mining and exploration industry?

SJ: I think the main thing working as a regional mapper for GSWA was the importance of understanding the regional scale. When you are mapping on a 1:100 000 map sheet of ≈ 40 x 50 km (≈ 24.85 x 31.07 mi) you can’t get bogged down with the detail in an individual outcrop. You have to keep moving, and if you don’t understand a particular outcrop, by the time you’ve seen five more, a pattern starts to emerge. These ideas were helpful when I started consulting as a structural geologist because they taught me to just keep making observations and wait for the pattern to emerge, rather than trying to apply a pre-conceived model.

BD: I’ve heard it said that some of your bosses have called you completely unmanageable. How do you respond to that, given that I was one of those awesome bosses?

SJ: Haha – I’m not unmanageable, just give me interesting work that I want to do and there’s no problem.

BD: There are far too many reports of the unsavory experiences women have experienced in our industry. Given you have straddled major sectors of the industry, have you experienced any truly negative ones?

SJ: I have come across some bad behavior during my working career. In one instance, I was at sea south of New Zealand in the Puyseger Trench, collecting samples from a deep-sea dredge on a fishing research vessel and the guy that ran the day shift refused to work with a woman. I just got around it by working with the night shift crew. When I come across bad behavior, I tend to avoid those people and shift my focus to the positive ones, which are the vast majority.

BD: There are very few women globally who compile industry-based technical geology reports to the standard you do (I know – I’ve read quite a few of them). What is your perception of the standing of women in the industry in technical roles like yours? Are they respected and rewarded adequately?

SJ: I think by the time you’ve gotten into a technical role you’ve done a lot of work to get there. So, in my experience, I don’t feel that I get treated or remunerated any differently than men in technical roles.

BD: Which geological environments do you most enjoy working in? And which deposit have you found most interesting?

SJ: I like to work in structurally complex areas (with at least three deformation events) as I really like to peel back the different deformation events and look for the early basin history. Because of this, I enjoy working in the Eastern Goldfields of Western Australia. The Agnew and Leonora areas have been particularly fascinating, as the gold deposits in these camps show such a wide range of structural settings from early D1 extensional to D3 compressional settings.

BD: Given the current focus on energy metals, have you noticed a change in the focus of your work?

SJ: Not really, as I mostly work for gold companies. I worked in manganese before the big shift in focus to energy minerals.

BD: I have to ask – what sort of geological feature most fascinates you and that you never get tired of seeing?

SJ: I think it’s growth faults. I like to look through deformation events to understand the earliest phase of basin development and growth faults, active at the time of basin formation are fascinating. I’ve been lucky to work in a few places where they’ve been well exposed. Probably the best place for these structures was at the Woodie Woodie manganese mine in Western Australia. These structures don’t disappear with subsequent deformation, instead, they remain important conduits for mineralizing fluids. This is particularly obvious in the open pits at Woodie Woodie, with high-grade fault-hosted manganese in the early normal faults. We also see this in the gold camps, with high-grade shoots associated with early basin-controlling structures, e.g., the Waroonga and Redeemer deposits, Agnew Camp, WA.

BD: Do you do much work with oriented core? If so, can you comment on your orientation audit process and your preferred data collection techniques?

SJ: I constantly work with oriented core, nowadays mostly from core photos as I’m based in New Zealand. I think the most important thing when working with oriented core is to have a good understanding of the geological system (e.g., bedding, foliation orientations) so that you can spot bad orientations versus interesting structural anomalies. I’m also using ‘core-profiler’ software from Datamine on the historic oriented core photos. This allows me to add a lot more structural information to the projects and to verify existing structural readings.

BD: You’ve traveled and worked widely. What is your opinion of the geological skillsets, experience, and knowledge of geologists today, especially those who are newly graduated?

SJ: I really think that it has always come down to the individual geologist. There are always going to be young graduates that don’t really have the passion for geology. Then you come across the ones that just love geology and are so enthusiastic and keen to learn. These are the ones that build an excellent geological skillset.

BD: Apart from meeting me, what do you consider the most satisfying moment in your professional career so far?

SJ: Apart from meeting you Brett – I think getting the regional D1 study for the Eastern Goldfields published two years ago. This work comprised a study that began when I was at GSWA, then involved many years of underground mapping and fieldwork at various mine sites in the Eastern Goldfields. A bonus for this study was the collaboration with you and Kevin Cassidy.

Dr Sarah Jones in the field
Dr Sarah Jones in the field

BD: We are seeing increasing implementation of new technology into mining and exploration geology. For example, drone surveys, core scanning and software such as Leapfrog. Are there technologies that you find particularly important for exploration? And do you think the use of these technologies is making better or worse field geologists?

SJ: I think the immediate information provided by core scanning to enhance drillcore logging is particularly important to understanding alteration systems. In brownfields exploration, many deposits are in areas with relatively dense historic drilling. If this historic drill core can also be scanned, this can greatly add to the understanding of the entire system. I find that historic drill core is typically ignored and is a huge, underutilized resource.

BD: Do you think that there are any mineral exploration strategies or technologies that are under-employed, but could make a big difference to an exploration campaign if people used them more?

SJ: I think that relogging and scanning historic drill core can add significantly to a brownfields exploration campaign for relatively little cost. Even just the relogging to look for patterns in alteration, lithology, and structure that may not have been recognized previously.

BD: If you had abundant financial funding, is there a fundamentally annoying geology question you’d like to solve or a topic you’d like to work on?

SJ: I think I’d like to continue with the D1 study, but look at a comparison with the Abitibi Belt. Of course, I’d need abundant financial funding for the fieldwork in Canada!

BD: What have you learned from field practice and your job experience that is not taught at university?

SJ: My first job as an exploration geologist at Darlot Gold Mine was a bit like doing an apprenticeship. I’d already done one of those as a typographer in the mid-1980s before I went to university. It was very enjoyable, and I learned the practical aspects of being an industry geologist. This is invaluable and I would not expect to learn that side of the job at university. It’s the place for gaining theoretical knowledge and I wouldn’t want to see that change.

BD: Here’s the familiar question that hopefully won’t be asked as much in future interviews – how has COVID-19 impacted life for you personally and professionally?

SJ: Yes, like everyone COVID-19 has impacted me personally and professionally. When the pandemic started, I was pretty anxious, as I’d just moved to New Zealand to start my new consultancy business and all of my work was on the other side of the Tasman. Luckily, my work mostly comprises structural analysis of ore deposits using existing drill core and mapping. So, I could continue to do this from my base in New Zealand. Technology has improved and I can log in via VPN to the drives in Perth allowing me to access all the data I require. As far as personal impact, living in a small town meant less exposure to COVID-19 and we didn’t have the prolonged lockdowns imposed on cities like Wellington and Auckland.

BD: Finally, any concluding comments or words of wisdom from an industry veteran?

SJ: Follow what you love doing and the work will appear. If you really love geology, I recommend following the technical route, as you will have a satisfying career that never gets boring.