Talking mining and minerals with Camborne School of Mines professor Frances Wall

Materials World magazine
,
2 Mar 2016

Natalie Daniels speaks to Frances Wall about her route into mining and encouraging others into a similar career path. 

Tell me about your background and career to date.

I studied Geochemistry at Queen Mary University of London because I enjoyed biology, geology and chemistry. I noticed that fewer women went into the physical sciences, so I chose geochemistry as it was a mixture of chemistry and geology. After completing my degree, I got a job working as a Geochemist at the Natural History Museum in the mineralogy department using electron microprobes to analyse the rock collection. One project, sponsored by the EU, involved working with minerals engineers, which is when I realised I enjoyed the applied side of research and working with people in the industry. I then moved to Camborne School of Mines (CSM), part of the University of Exeter where my neighbours were mining and mineral engineers. This allowed me to work closely with mineral and mining related engineering, and developed my interest in the wider sense of responsible mining, as well as keeping on top of the geology of rare rocks.

What I didn't do was sit down and think, ‘I would like to be an engineer.’ I came across into the mining industry by going through the geochemistry and mineralogy route, and then realised that it was a very interesting area with a lot of really good and important topics – it is also a little bit different. Not many people think of the mining industry, it is not top of the career agenda in the UK – people assume it has all closed down and gone away, and yet everything we use every day is dependent on things mined from the ground. So, actually, you are doing something very relevant that not many people know about.

How has the mining industry changed over the last 20 years?

I have been at the CSM since 2007. Although I was aware of the mining industry, I wasn't looking at it so critically much before then. In the last 20 years, the focus has been on corporate social responsibility and about the mining industry needing to be at the top of the league table in terms of the health and safety performance and corporate social responsibility performance. Having a social license to operate is top of the agenda and we see that time and time again. 30–40 years ago, the focus would have been on economics at the top of the ladder and now mining companies realise they won't be able to work unless they have this license.

What advice would you give to anyone thinking of entering a similar profession?

It is so important to follow your interests, and to enjoy what you do. If you look at the mining industry, there are lots of different careers and it needs everything in there from engineers and geologists working out how to get the rocks out of the ground, through to ecologists and biologists looking at how to do that with little disruption to the environment. The engineering in mining these days is not like people might think – it isn’t just coal miners with dirty faces, it is a really high-tech career. You can work in robotics or more on the social side – working with people in maths, engineering and mining. It is a subject that I believe a lot of women would enjoy if they thought about it. I think most people never even consider it as a career – maybe the first advice would be to have a look, try it out, and meet different miners to see if you enjoy it.

Would you say there is still an underlying stereotype when it comes to a mining career?

Yes, maybe even worse than a stereotype. Most people in the UK probably don't even think about at all. The closing of the last coal mine may make people believe it is all gone, whereas, actually, we have had the first metalliferous mine in the UK for 40 years open up last year by Wolf Minerals in Plymouth. There are some exciting industrial projects going on and of course there are many consultants here, who are based in the UK, but work on projects from all over the world.

What are the benefits of a career in this profession and what do you enjoy most?

I think the international work is very important, and something I really enjoy, particularly the science of finding out how the Earth works, how minerals behave and what the best practices are. There is also this lovely bonus of working with people from all over the world, so I have friends in Russia, Canada and the USA – it is a very international community.

Do you think the UK could do be doing more to encourage young people into the profession?

Yes, if you look at our careers website, I don't think you see any mention of mining. You might find it under the geology somewhere, but you will never find it under engineering. I think mining has quite a low profile in the UK and there is more we could do. 

In terms of your professional development, how do you use traditional and social media to network with others?

I have my own Twitter account, for professional purposes for CSM – to tweet research projects, blogs from fieldwork, and to keep other industry professionals up to date with what we are doing. Twitter is really useful because it is so quick and you are able to pick up and share news instantly. The other thing we tried when the Mineralogical Society held a recent conference, we sent out an abstract as a Twitter image, so it is like a mini poster, you can tweet that and reach people quickly and easily through that medium.

We also use LinkedIn to keep up to date with students – that is very important to us. LinkedIn gives us the opportunity to network with them and keep connected within the CSM and other related communities.

Finally, tell me about your involvement in the Women in Mining organisation?

I have been involved as a member producing local, informal networking activities for women and students in Cornwall. When I was nominated as one of the 100 influential women in mining, I became more involved. I am now part of the membership committee trying to improve links with UK universities, suggesting ways to help more students attend meetings and starting to do some activities outside of London.

Professor Frances Wall is the first female President of the Mineralogical Society of Great Britain and Ireland. She was recently recognised as one of the 100 most influential women in mining by Women in Mining (UK) and served at the Camborne School of Mines, University of Exeter between 2008 to 2014. 

To join Women in Mining, or to find out more, visit www.womeninmining.org.uk