Faces of GSN

Elizabeth Zbinden, Geologist and Geochemist (Published in February 2012 GSN Newsletter)

Thank you to GSN for asking me to write this. Geology has satisfied my joy in travel and adventure; reading through previous entries in the Faces of GSN series impresses me with how common a theme this is for GSN members.

I was born in Kansas while my dad was in the Army; after completing service my dad taught German language & literature, and my mother was a storyteller in public school libraries. Along with one younger sister I grew up in Pennsylvania and Ohio. As a toddler I would pick up pretty rocks when out on walks with my mother. A bit older, I enjoyed Girl Scout camping. I did not think of these in terms of a geology career until getting to college and taking a geology course. I discovered one could collect rocks, go camping, hang out drinking beer with interesting people, and figure out how the world around us works. What a winning combination!

After completing the B.S. in geology from Northwestern University, I moved along to University of Hawaii for a master's degree. At U.H. there are two obvious choices for concentrations in earth sciences: volcanoes or oceans. I picked volcanoes. My studies were funded by a fellowship from the East-West Center. EWC is a think-tank funded jointly by the governments of USA and several Asia-Pacific nations. It sponsors graduate students and mid-career professionals to work on issues of significance to the Asia-Pacific region. I thought I could get a master's degree and save the world at the same time. Well, I did get the master's degree.

At that point I started an academic career as research assistant in geological sciences at Harvard; I moved from Honolulu to Boston in the heart of winter (on a January 1st) just to reinforce the contrast. I worked with geochemist and economic geologist Dick Holland. The topic of study was the evolution of earth's early atmosphere using paleosols developed before land plants evolved. The story is that the soils represented equilibrium between rock and atmosphere and we could infer the composition of the atmosphere that produced the observed weathering horizons. It was during this time that I first visited mines; we looked for paleosols preserved at unconformity surfaces beneath Witwatersrand gold and Elliot Lake uranium deposits.

After a few years of that it seemed necessary to go for a Ph.D. so I went back to the other side of the country again for the geochemistry program at Stanford. I was interested in volcanic volatiles and wanted to learn experimental geochemistry. I enjoyed the experimental geochemistry and also enjoyed hanging out with the ore deposits exploration (ODEX) group -- they seemed to have more fun than any other group. My project combined both, by looking at the fumarolic transport of tin around the Taylor Creek Rhyolite of New Mexico. I feel privileged to have both Jonathan Stebbins and Marco Einaudi as advisors.

During my time at Stanford I was quite active in the Bay Area chapter of AWG (Association for Women Geoscientists). A colleague at AWG introduced me to an old high school buddy of hers, James Bell. James is now my AWG trophy husband. He is an aeronautical engineer with NASA, but accompanies me on many geology adventures.

Upon finishing the degree I applied for jobs many places in the world, but it was the one in Nevada that came through -- thank you to Jake Margolis for giving me a foot in the door with a Geotemps contract position at Homestake's exploration office in Sparks. This was in 1996, which turned out to be rather a poor time to enter the gold exploration and mining business. But I hung in there with a series of contract positions and learned to enjoy moving from job to job. In that time, GSN became family and a good reason to stay rooted here even while traveling elsewhere to work. I have worked with GSN over the course of three symposia (plus a mini-symposium in spring 2001) and as publication chair for five years.

Though contract work was fine, I really wanted to try out a "permanent" job and I finally got a staff position at Round Mountain Gold Company. It was a great group of people to work with, and what I was hoping for-- but then I had an opportunity to go to Mongolia with Canadian junior QGX. I was reluctant to quit, but such an opportunity was not to be passed up. No sooner had I arrived in Mongolia than the parliament changed its mining law, making it much less favorable for foreign exploration firms there. My job changed from the planned development drilling on a VMS gold-copper deposit to shoe-leather and rock-hammer exploration, evaluating a set of licenses to recommend which ones would be worth keeping in the new legal environment. Not surprisingly, the job lasted only the one season, but I was able to continue international work at Sepon Mine, a copper-gold mine in Laos run by the Australian company Oxiana. Sepon's claim to fame is that it is built right on what was once the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Every place we moved had to be cleared by the EOD (explosive ordnance demolition) teams. When the copper price crashed in fall 2008 I returned to the US, a little disappointed to be returning to plain old home. How silly! I next worked at Briggs Mine in Panamint Valley, California, and quickly began to appreciate that, to people from the jungles of Southeast Asia (for example), Basin and Range deserts are pretty darned exotic too. To illustrate this memoir, I include a picture of myself and James at exotic #1, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and exotic #2, Burning Man on the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. For all the joys of traveling, the joys of geology started out for me with picking up pretty rocks. So I also include a picture of me working with pretty rocks, logging core at Yerington.

Elizabeth Zbinden