Faces of GSN

John Muntean (Published in May 2012 GSN Newsletter)

Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology
“Living the dream” is a cliché to most, but that is what geology has allowed me to do. Few people in life are blessed with making a living doing something that they are truly passionate about, where the only true difficulty is the lack of hours in a day. My passion for geology and gold exploration has pushed me to expand and grow as a person and experience a lot more than I ever would have imagined as a kid.

To put it in perspective, I grew up in the northwest corner of Indiana near Chicago. The “Region” was a very flat land of factories, concrete, and bedroom communities of closely spaced houses. Few people went to college, and most got jobs in the mills. Both my grandfathers were hourly, my dad was salaried, and because I was good in science and math, I was destined to work in the mill as an engineer. That was the natural progression. That did not sit well with me growing up, especially after taking two long “Griswold-like” summer family vacations, where I got to see something other than a smokestack on the horizon for the first time, namely the Rockies and the Sierras. After those experiences, I started reading a lot about the American West, especially about the gold rushes and boom towns. When I was 16, my life changed. My dad passed away at a young age, which impressed upon me that I could die at any time and that I should try to live my life without regrets. Later that year, I saw a television program on PBS about modern gold exploration. Like most Americans, I had no idea there were people still looking for gold, and employing science and technology to boot. The next day I checked out all the books the library had on geologists. I then took aptitude tests from my high school guidance counselor and found that geology was a good fit. A strange sense of calm and clarity came over me. At that point I knew what I was called to do, and from then on the blinders have been on.

After high school I went to Purdue University, not to be an engineer, but to study geology. I was fortunate to work with Bob Loucks, an economic geology professor who taught me an incredible amount. Up until that point, my science edu-cation was rote learning. Under Bob’s tutelage, I did an undergraduate research project on gold-quartz veins in the Medicine Bow Mountains of Wyoming, during which I learned to observe, record data, and apply the scientific method. For better or worse, that started me on a long trek of bouncing back and forth from research and industry, trying to bring together their common interests. After Purdue, I went on to the to the University of Michigan, where I did a MS under Steve Kesler on the huge Pueblo Viejo high-sulfidation epithermal gold deposit in the Dominican Republic. Going to the DR was my first time overseas experience and included flying into the mine in a Vietnam-era helicopter with soldiers armed with M-16s and a load of plantains when protesting campesinos had blocked all the roads. No big deal for most geologists, but certainly a big deal at that time for this sheltered Midwesterner.

Then in 1989, I moved from Ann Arbor to Winnemucca to be an exploration geologist on staff with Santa Fe Pacific. Though I had summer jobs with the USGS and Atlas in Nevada and Oregon, Santa Fe was my first real job in the industry.

I, along with other new hires, worked under Wade Hodges. Based in Winnemucca, I was totally immersed in learning about exploration. Long days, followed by long dinners at the Martin talking, yelling “cocktails on 5” at Winner’s with Jeff Deen after midnight, and coming in the next day reeking of garlic and red wine ready to do it again. Oh, to be young and feeling like superman once again. Those were my favorite years in industry. As many GSNers can attest to, it was such a great atmosphere at Santa Fe during that time, thanks to people like Ron Parratt.

During my time with Santa Fe I was on a team that explored mainly for epithermal gold deposits west of Winnemucca. During that time I wondered what processes were operating under epithermal deposits. In 1991, Dick Sillitoe came through Reno and gave a talk on the Maricunga Belt in the high Andes of Chile, during which he showed exposures where porphyry mineralization transitioned into epithermal mineralization along single hillsides. That talk inspired me to do a PhD under Marco Einaudi at Stanford University, where I mapped porphyry-epithermal transitions in 3 districts in the Maricunga Belt. Marco passed down the Anaconda legacy of extracting as many secrets as you can from the rocks before jumping to conclusions.

Before leaving for Stanford I met my wife Donna in Reno. My first 2 years at Stanford were treated like an extended drill project where I did “10-4s”, spending 10 days at Stanford and driving back to Reno to spend 4 days with Donna. Soon after we got married in 1994, I disappeared to Chile for 6 months. I am sure some GSNers can relate. Donna, my daughter Kylie and son John have been my saviors, giving me some semblance of balance, though our definitions of balance do not always jive. Such balance is critical; there would be no way I could sustain the pace of those wild and crazy Santa Fe days.

After graduating from Stanford in 1998, I jumped back into industry, first with Homestake, and then six years with Placer Dome. During that time, I began focusing on Carlin-type gold deposits, quite the change from my epithermal and porphyry background to that point. In 2004 I decided to jump back into research. In January of 2005 I began my current position as Research Economic Geologist/Professor with the Nevada Bureau of Mines at the University of Nevada Reno. I learned that “getting the geology right” was important but is not the most critical objective for an exploration geologist in industry, which is to find ore that will make their company lots of money either by mining it or selling it. It’s been my perception that the most successful exploration geologists truly have the blinders on and are entirely focused on that objective at the expense of everything else, even to the point of sacrificing their careers and families. So for now I am in the business of “getting the geology right” and helping train the next generation of Nevada exploration geologists. Seriously, my position with NBMG allows me to pursue my long-time goal to bring together the common interests of industry and research. Instead of one company, I get to work with several companies and hopefully help them find ore. This last year, though, has been very tough with the huge budget cuts suffered by NBMG, and, honestly, has made me re-evaluate my future. Whether or not NBMG can successfully continue its role as the state’s geological survey remains to be seen. But the explorationist in me tells me to remain optimistic and not cut and run. I trust GSNers will continue to be supportive of NBMG.

I am proud to be a member of GSN. Going to meetings and the symposium in the early 90s was a great way for some-one new to Nevada to expand beyond the comfort zone of his company and meet lots of interesting “characters”. I know of no other group of people so committed to their profession. When GSNers run into each other, rather than exchanging niceties about family and their golf games, the conversation jumps right to a specific outcrop or drill hole intercept (Radu knows what I am talking about). It is also encouraging to see new blood being infused until GSN. From my first GSN meeting that I attended in 1990 into the early 2000s, I was almost always one of the 5 or 10 youngest people in the crowd. However there have been many more younger faces at the meetings in recent years, especially at meetings in Elko and Winnemucca, away from the Reno mothership. I hope that trend continues.

John Muntean