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Geologist/Geophysicist

Ron Hackney is PhD student in the Department of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Western Australia.

In which area or areas of science do you work? When did you first become interested in this career? How did you first become interested in this career?
How long did it take to get the necessary qualifications? How has your career progressed? What are the tasks that you do in a typical day?
What skills do you use in your job? What is the most exciting aspect of your job? What do you like least about your job?
What are some alternative jobs that you would be qualified for? What are some of the advantages of working in this field? What are some of the disadvantages of working in this field?
How has your work contributed to science? How has your work benefited society? Where do you see yourself in five years time?
Find out more about geology and geophysics from Ron Find out more about the geology of Antarctica Useful links

In which area or areas of science do you work?

Earth science, specifically geology and geophysics. Geology is the study of the Earth and the processes that shape its formation and evolution. Geophysics is the branch of geology in which the methods of physics (and maths) are applied to help solve geological problems.


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When did you first become interested in this career?

My career in geology began during my first year at university, but I always had an interest in science, science subjects were the ones that I enjoyed most at school. Earth science was a small component of my high school science, but it was one component that I found particularly fascinating: What makes volcanoes erupt? What causes earthquakes? What makes mountains so spectacular?


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How did you first become interested in this career?

I got into Earth science by accident. I started a Bachelor of Science degree with a view to transfer into Engineering. In first year I dropped a subject I didn't enjoy, and needing something to fill the gap, decided to try a geology course. And that was it, I thoroughly enjoyed geology and found it something I could relate to and see all around me wherever I went. I found Earth science something to which I could apply all my previous knowledge and that it was a step back from pure physics, maths and chemistry.

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How long did it take you to get the necessary qualifications?

Geologists draw on all the fundamental branches of science (physics, chemistry, maths etc.). I believe that a solid grounding in these fundamental fields of science is important and I was fortunate that my high school background in physics, maths and chemistry gave me a base from which I could choose from a wide range of science careers.

To date I've followed a largely academic/research career path, so I'm still gaining qualifications. So far those qualifications include:

Bachelor of Science (Honours), 4 years: Maths and physics to second year, geology from first year, geophysics in 3rd and 4th (Honours) year.

Master of Science, 2 years: Program of research in geophysics. Fieldwork to collect data, followed by processing and interpretation of that data.

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) - 2 years so far (at least 1 more to come): Larger program of fieldwork than the MSc, new data collected and ongoing processing of that data.
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How has your career progressed?

My research career began in my 4th Honours year of the BSc degree. I studied the flow of rocks within the Earth, processes that relate to where volcanoes form and how the continents on which we live have evolved and moved around the surface of the Earth.

I decided during the BSc that I'd like to go to Antarctica, and going as a scientist is one of the best ways to get to Antarctica. I contacted several universities in Australia and New Zealand to see if projects were available. I was eventually offered a place with a research team in New Zealand aiming to understand the formation of the Transantarctic Mountains (a large mountain range cutting across Antarctica) and to learn about what secrets are hidden beneath the thick ice (up to 4 km) in Antarctica. That project was a very unique one - the work was carried out almost 500 km from the nearest base in an area where only one group had been before (some 40 years earlier). The project provided new data that was used to explain the origin of the Transantarctic Mountains and provided images of rock structures hidden under the ice that have never been seen before.

A glacier descending from the Transantarctic Mountains at 82 degrees south. The picture is taken from the Ross Ice Shelf, a 400m thick slab of ice floating on the sea. The mountains in this photo reach heights above 2000m and although they look close they are almost 20 km away.

As I was gaining much satisfaction from research science, the next logical career step was to undertake a PhD. I settled on a project in the Hamersley Ranges of Western Australia. About two billion years ago, the Hamersley Ranges were a mountain chain similar to the Himalayas and the European Alps. But because they are old, the mountains have largely eroded away, and only a few pieces of evidence still exist to support their existence. The Hamersley Ranges are also important because some of the largest known deposits of iron ore are mined there. Geological and geophysical research work will help the companies mining iron ore to better understand how those deposits formed and, subsequently, to help them to discover new deposits of this economically important mineral.

Folded rocks in a gorge east of the town of Newman in the Hamersley Ranges. The original flat-lying iron rocks have been bent and buckled by the massive forces associated with the continents crashing together. Note the geologist in the middle for scale.

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What are the tasks that you do in a typical day?

In the office:

communicating with colleagues around the world via email to discuss ideas and future research plans. Often preparing reports and sometimes applying for funding. Processing data on computers using specially developed software. Making maps and diagrams to present results visually. Thinking!
In the field:
I have spent about 3 months a year in the field during the last two years. In the field I typically drive through the spectacular terrain of the Hamersley Ranges to get to my work area. I drive around and stop regularly to use sensitive scientific instruments to measure physical properties of the Earth that help us to explain the geological features that we can see on the surface. At the end of the day a meal is prepared on an open fire under the stars, perhaps followed by a little data processing on the computer and planning for the next day.

This is me using a gravity meter in the Hamersley Ranges. Different types of rocks in the Earth have different masses and therefore will attract objects to a greater or lesser extent. A gravity meter is sensitive enough to detect the small changes in gravity that reflect density differences, and these variations can be used to infer the structure of the Earth's crust.

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What skills do you use in your job?

Communication skills (written and oral): To explain ideas, plan projects and listen to the ideas of others.

Problem solving: A map of rock types or a set of numbers measured in the field always presents a problem that needs solving.

Computer skills: Computers are an essential tool in geology. I use standard software and software purpose-designed for processing geophysical data. Occasionally I write my own simple computer programs.

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What is the most exciting aspect of your job?

The process of identifying a problem and then designing a program of research to address that problem, collecting data and developing a hypothesis based on that data is an extremely satisfying job. This is what draws me to science, and this is what fuels my enthusiasm. Science is never dull or uninteresting - just when you think you have a problem solved, something else comes along that destroys your hypothesis and the process begins again. This uncertainty adds to the excitement of science.

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What do you enjoy least about your job?

Every new answer or explanation brings a new series of questions, and there is never enough time to address every question! It's frustrating having to leave something for another day, a day that more often than not never comes.

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What are some alternative jobs that you would be qualified for?

Working in the mining industry, exploring for new deposits of gold, iron, copper etc, or working to extract minerals in a more efficient and environmentally friendly ways.

Teaching science at high school or at university.

Research work could also be carried out in organisations other than universities (e.g. private industry, CSIRO, government geological surveys).

Science communication: Explaining science to the community. This could be done through universities, museums, private industry or government.

Engineering: For example, when a dam is built an understanding of the geology of the dam site is essential. Weaknesses in the surrounding rock could spell disaster for the dam.

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What are some of the advantages to working in this field?

Travel both locally and internationally. I have been fortunate to visit the US, Europe, New Zealand, outback Australia and parts of the world never visited before in Antarctica.

A certain amount of freedom to work on things that match your own interests. A research scientist can tailor their career to topics that interest them most.

Interacting with other scientists who share my enthusiasm for learning about the Earth.

The chance to explain what I learn about the Earth in simple terms to the wider community.

What are some of the disadvantages to working in this field?

Despite the advantages of travel, it can mean long periods away from home. Fortunately, most geologists work for a period of several weeks in the field, and then return home for a break before returning to the field again.

How has your work contributed to science?

Evidence to support the ideas of others regarding the processes that are occurring deep within the Earth.

A new understanding of what is obscured under the ice in Antarctica.

A contribution to the understanding of how mountains are formed.

New methods that may contribute to understanding how the impact of climate change on Antarctica will affect??? us all (what will happen if Antarctic ice melts?).

New knowledge of how large iron ore deposits in northwest Australia fit into the evolutionary history of the Hamersley Ranges.

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How has your work benefited society?

I believe that the contribution my work, and indeed all scientific work, makes to society can be summed up in a phrase coined by a former student colleague: "All scientific research is relevant because it contributes to the ongoing evolutionary state of our overall global consciousness" (Brett Wilson, February 1993). Most of us wonder about the universe we live in, science contributes to the inherent need in all of us to explain why we are here. On a less philosophical note, I continue to actively pass on what I have learnt to others. They in turn will make their own contributions to society.

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Where do you see yourself in 5 years time?

There are endless opportunities and paths to choose from. I hope that after I complete my PhD that I may get some experience working in the mining industry and then to spend some time living and working in Europe. Ultimately I see myself working in a university where I can achieve a balance between pursuing my own research interests, contributing to larger problems that are relevant to the resource industry, and passing on what I have learnt to others that follow me, hopefully instilling some of my enthusiasm into them! I would also be happy working somewhere like a science centre where I can explain science in simple terms to the community. That is a very satisfying experience.

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Find out more about Geology and Geophysics

If you wish to ask Ron for additional information, you can email UniServe Science and we will contact Ron for you. Make sure you include Ron's name and occupation in the Subject line.

Find out more about the geology of Antarctica

Geology and Geophysics from Antarctic Geology and Geophysics, National Science Foundation

Antarctica Online

Antarctic Crustal Profile (ACRUP) Seismic Project

Virtual Antarctica

Antarctic Quicktime VRs

Virtual Field Trip - Antarctica - from UniServe Science

Useful Links for Geology/Geophysics

Science Futures - profile of Andrew McDonald - an exploration geologist in Science Futures (WISENET)

Branches of geoscience

Mining Engineer - from University of Queensland

Profiles of Geoscientists - an American site which contains a wide range of related careers in the geosciences

Australia: The land where time began - Contains a list of links on Australian Geology


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