Q&A from the experts: In conversation with Dr Richard Tosdal

February 11, 2023
Dr Richard Tosdal
Dr Richard Tosdal – President at PicachoEx LLC

Richard M. Tosdal received a bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Santa Barbara (USCB) in 1974, an MSc from Queen’s University (1978) and a PhD from the USCB (1988). He has been a Research Scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey or USGS (1978-1999), and the Director of the internationally recognized Mineral Deposit Research Unit (MDRU) at the University of British Columbia (1999-2008). He serves on technical advisory boards to junior companies and consults the minerals industry on aspects regarding the metallogenic evolution of plate margins, the structural controls on ore deposition, and the evolution of porphyry Cu, sedimentary rock-hosted Au, and epithermal deposits.

Dr Brett Davis: You have worked with an enormous number of people over the years. Apart from me, who has inspired you in the field of geology?

Dr Richard Tosdal: I would rather think about this question not from inspiration, but in terms of who has helped or facilitated or opened doors for me over the years. Two people are important in this context.

I want to start with my first undergraduate advisor at UCSB, Robert Webb, who took a youngster who picked geology as a major without having the first clue what it entailed and then transferred universities. The main thought in selecting the major was that I could surf my life away. Dr Webb showed me how I could graduate by the end of the normal four years and was always available to manipulate the accessory course requirements such that I graduated on time. Without him, I am not sure I would have discovered the desire and ability to make geologic maps as a profession.

Second is Gordon Haxel at the U.S. Geological Survey who hired me off the streets on contract and ran interference through the bureaucracy that eventually led to a full-time position, he also supported me through my PhD at the time.

These two perhaps unbeknownst to themselves were important at a critical time early in my career.

BD: You’ve worked for the United States Geological Survey, and you’ve run the Mineral Deposit Research Unit at the University of British Columbia. What were your most rewarding moments in these roles?

RT: Working for the Geological Survey provided me with the opportunity to be exposed to the full range of geosciences, thereby introducing a young geoscientist to world-class scientists who readily shared knowledge. Although each of us at the USGS had an assigned project requiring a product mandated by the funding agency, each geoscientist was expected and given the opportunity to go beyond what was required and encouraged to publish the results in international journals. It was expected if one wished to advance in their career.

At the University of British Columbia, I ran the Mineral Deposit Research Unit (MDRU). This is a self-funded joint venture group between the mineral industry and the university. There was a funding mechanism for the administrative group, but all research projects undertaken to provide opportunities for graduate students and post-doctoral fellows required securing time-limited outside funding. This led to the development of some excellent applied projects found upon fundamental basic science principles that I suggest had a lasting impact on our exploration concepts. These are the rewarding scientific moments.

On a personal side, seeing graduate students move on to successful careers is somewhat akin to watching your children grow up. One cares about their success, but only wishes they would keep in touch. Yet, I suspect they were just as happy to not see ink on the thesis drafts, to finally finish, and move on as I was to quit reading their thesis.

BD: Given your success in the research space, including your publication record and the postgraduate geology students you supervised, what made you move into a consulting role in the industry?

RT: Running a research consultancy business is similar in minor respects to running a company, but in this case, the product is well-trained geoscientists. Maintaining a high level of productivity in a self-funded group is possible over the years, and I could have continued. However, self-funded entities, such as MDRU, require reinvigoration on a regular basis as their direction and productivity directly reflect their staffing. Without staff turnover, research groups eventually fall into a rut of continually doing the same sort of projects. Only by changing senior staff can the internal excitement be sustained. So, it was my time to move on. Besides, it was my wife’s turn to dictate where we live as she is in the biotech industry, has more degrees than I do, and was essentially under-employed while living in Vancouver.

BD: I feel I’m giving you too many compliments. However, they are well-deserved, and I’ll state here that you are one of the rare breeds of people who genuinely understand structural geology in the context of intrusion-related mineral systems. Can you convey your perspective on the importance of understanding structural geology at all scales in terms of mineral systems?

RT: Too many geoscientists (including structural geologists) view structure as divorced from other aspects of geology, such as mineralogy, geochemistry, petrology, etc. This is simply not the case, as most would admit, I am confident. However, when you read structure reports or manuscripts, there is a tendency to ignore or minimize the interaction of structural fabrics with all the other aspects of geology that together make an orebody.

BD: Leading on from the previous question, what fundamental geological puzzles do you think remain unanswered in the mineral system space?

RT: Is anybody correct in their basic assumptions? But being a bit of a cynic, I think we have been playing in the mineral system space for hundreds of years. There is now a set of words to describe what we have been doing. Or is it just a portion of the mineral deposit community that has been thinking this way?

BD: Are you undertaking any active research at the moment?

RT: Each consulting or contract is essentially a research opportunity. I view long-term or repetitive involvement in projects, such as research programs, as involvement as the project moves forward, hopefully contributing positively. Most jobs do not result in any publications, apart from what we did collaboratively in Serbia. The publication of explored projects – whether they become economic or not – by those who actually did the work, is sorely lacking. Credit should go where credit is due, but as you know, the publication game is not always for the faint of heart, and one can become easily discouraged.

Recently, I have been publishing the thesis results of many of my past graduate students, who do not seem to have the drive to do so. Their work was in part funded by the Canadian government, and their results should be available to the whole geoscience community and not be buried in a university library. But we are getting close to the end of that list. Maybe a couple more to go.

BD: I’ve been privileged to both contribute to, and partake in, some of your workshops. You obviously place a great deal of importance on the transfer of knowledge. What are your thoughts on mentoring geologists, and how well do you think the mining and exploration industry is achieving this?

RT: I have mixed feelings on the latter part of your question. Too often, I see the youngest geologist doing the critical basic exploration work without actually being told or shown why and how it might fit together. There is pressure from senior management to produce since exploration is basically a manufacturing process. However, the lack of involvement or rather the lack of demonstration of the reason why any task is important slows professional development and sometimes leads to young geoscientists being placed in positions of responsibility without having the appropriate skillset or experience to succeed. In my opinion mentoring is an absolute MUST for any successful program, academic or industrial. It takes effort but it pays off in the end.

BD: As an addendum to the previous question, do you think early-career geologists are exiting university with the appropriate skills for roles in the minerals industry?

RT: New graduates are computer- and knowledge-savvy, but lack basic understanding of what a rock (used generically for any and all aspects of geoscience) looks like in real time. This is a function of the changing global educational and societal priorities, as well as diminished field opportunities, due to legal and educational changes. One can criticize the university system, but unless any group puts their ‘oar-in-the-water’ to affect changes in educational priority, it is just words, a Don Quixote moment.

BD: Yet another thing I respect about you is that you are a boots-on-the-ground geologist and spend significant time on mining and exploration sites and in the field. What are your perceptions of the geologists you meet at these sites? Do you think they are interested geologists, or just using their early career time to get into cushy office roles?

RT: As you know, you meet young geoscientists with a wide range of interest and skills. Cultural differences around the world influence how interested a young geoscientist is in fieldwork versus an office position. However, with the current wide usage of modeling software, young geoscientists, who have grown up in the digital world, are by nature attracted to that aspect of geoscience and exploration. Heavens, I do not want to do it. Nonetheless, the better modeling geoscientists in the industry that I have met also understand what a rock looks like in the field. Field training is paramount to a successful geoscientist.

BD: Everyone has a handful of deposits that have left a mark on them, be it because of the amazing geology, the hideous conditions, the people they worked with, etc. Which deposits do you hold dear and which ones really were difficult to work on?

RT: Generally, the first project in one’s career always leaves a lasting impression. For me, it is the Paleocene-Eocene porphyry Cu-Mo belt in southern Peru. There, the link between magmatic-hydrothermal, tectonics, uplift, exhumation, supergene processes, and the climate of the Andes opened a door to thinking about the bigger metallogenic environment and the preservation or in this case the upgrading of deposits by post-mineral events. In a similar context, the long working relation at Cadia Valley in New South Wales falls into the same theme. For me, it is more fun to think about the bigger picture than just look at structural fabrics, mineralogy, geochemistry, petrology, or whatever of a particular ore body. The bigger picture has always been more attractive to me than the details. But the details are important to understanding the bigger picture, of course.

BD: Which projects are you actively working on now?

RT: Over the years, each of us in this business develops a series of companies, that use our talents on a semi-regular basis. Long-term work currently has me in the western US, Canada, Colombia, and Turkey. I am sure this will change with time.

Dr Richard Tosdal at Galore Creek
Dr Richard Tosdal at Galore Creek

BD: What is the geological feature you find most interesting and enjoy working on?

RT: I am drawn to the bigger scale of a metallotect, a district, or a deposit. How do all the pieces fit together in a coherent or ‘least astonishing’ way? Fortunately, the time spent with the geological survey making maps at a huge range of scales has provided sufficient background to come up with an idea that an exploration program can then go and test. One hopes that you are not too far off, or as we say, be ‘the least incorrect’. One needs to be able to toss ideas out and away quickly in each case. Sometimes, it is hard to throw away a really neat model, but if it does not fit, then out it goes with the bathwater.

BD: How has technology impacted the way you work? Has it been useful or detrimental? I’ll hijack the interview for a second here and state that I think that many technologies are two-edged swords. Electronic logging devices are stopping people from fully interrogating core. 3D visualization software such as Leapfrog has turned geologists into chair polishers and desk jockeys, instead of collecting and auditing data and understanding geological context. Is this your perception, or do you think I am being overly critical?

RT: Took the words from my mouth. Some of this derives from the needs or desires from corporate for information and data in ‘real-time’. However, it does provide opportunities for us ‘oldsters’ to quickly find the jewels or the holes in any particular model. Keep us busy.

BD: Much of the world is a geopolitical basket-case, has extreme security risks, or corruption at all levels. If we could toss these aspects aside, where are the holy grails for deposit discovery in terms of geological terranes that haven’t been touched by modern exploration and/or historical mining?

RT: Africa. I have not spent much time on the continent, but this is my impression from afar. For example, I suspect that if the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia could figure out the local issues, the Copper Belt could put many of the porphyry Cu deposits elsewhere in the world out of business.

BD: Do you think that geological societies, such as the Society of Economic Geology, have adapted with the times in terms of being useful entities for their members? Or are there basic things that such societies should be providing and/or promoting?

RT: Any society, company, government, and even individuals are generally slow to adapt to change, and usually lack the urge to do so. I am not much different, as I have yet to become proficient in GIS software as there is always somebody who can do it faster and better than me when on a job. Some of the resistance to change is due to stubbornness. One way has worked well, so why change?

Other impediments are the need to bring along the rest of the group to adapt to whatever change is required or just advocated. But most of the societies are trying their best within the framework of their structure. Change is always slow, and the impediments are generally people and their beliefs and associations.

BD: Being able to take complex concepts and ideas and convey them in simple terms that don’t leave out important details is a skill you have. Unfortunately, some people who interface with companies and the public are woeful communicators. Do you have any tips for people who want to be successful in getting their ideas across, especially verbally?

RT: Keep it simple and avoid all the jargon that makes one sound intelligent, but is only confusing the listener. Structural geology ranks up there as one of the worst for jargon.

BD: A skill we both share is proficiency in Spanish. Can you tell the readers how this has helped in your career?

RT: Although English (not the Australian version) has become the science language, being able to communicate in a different language opens doors for additional opportunities, new colleagues, and most importantly, friends. One does not need to be completely proficient in the second language, but you need to try and continue to communicate verbally. Learning to write in the language is another skill level that I have yet to achieve, and probably never will, unless I move to a Spanish-speaking country.

BD: You have worked in many countries. Which has been your favourite, and why?

RT: There is a certain nostalgia for Peru and Turkey. The former because of my first research project, and the latter since I had the opportunity to live there as a boy while my father was attached to NATO. Both are beautiful countries.

BD: If you had your time again, what would you do differently? That is, apart from moving to Queensland, Australia, which is the best place in the world.

RT: I will have to think a bit and essentially not answer the question. Perhaps the biggest challenge we (my wife and I) had was balancing two professional careers, and children, as a family. This is an ongoing challenge not just for us, but for many in the exploration industry. There is always one member of the duo that gives more than the other. Finding the balance that allows both to progress equally in a professional career is tough, and many are not completely successful for a range of reasons. My wife and I were not completely successful in my opinion, which probably is my biggest regret. Nonetheless, we are still married after almost 40 years, so I must have done something well.

These days, the buzzword is life-balance. Well, that, in my opinion, is a fancy term for taking control of your career and personal life and making decisions that are correct for personal and family reasons. This is not just having more time off from whatever job. Unfortunately, I get the impression that some, but certainly not all, view life-balance in those terms.

For myself, there are some decisions made that I think I might revisit now after I lived the result, but this is a useless exercise. So, I try to take the lessons from the past, look ahead, guess what is next, what opportunities might arise, but always maintain a balance and focus on how it will or might impact the family.

BD: You have suggested for a while that you are edging toward retirement. I find that hard to believe but, if so, what does the next chapter hold for Dick Tosdal?

RT: Who said I was retiring? But I will at some point as I am in my 70s. Getting up the hills takes a bit more work than it used to. This is truly distressing, I must admit.

Read Issue 22 here:

Issue 22 / 2023