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New Face: Simon Jowitt

This economic geologist talks about being in a state where the mining industry thrives and about the difficulty of getting his 6-foot 4-inch frame into a running helicopter on rough ground.

People  |  May 1, 2017  |  By Shane Bevell

Simon Jowitt, assistant professor of economic geology (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Creative Services)

UK native Simon Jowitt points to collaboration as a key to professional success.

Why UNLV?

Two reasons – firstly, the opportunity. My position here at UNLV arose after professor Jean Cline, the previous economic geologist in the department of geoscience, retired after a very productive career. I leapt at the chance to move to UNLV to be based in a state like Nevada where mining is still a big industry. The second reason is the university itself; UNLV is clearly ambitious and I didn’t want to move to a university that appeared to be coasting.

What about UNLV strikes you as different from other places you have worked?

I’m not sure there are huge differences between UNLV and the other universities I have worked at. One thing that does spring to mind is the weather; having grown up in the UK and having lived in Melbourne, Australia, the heat here is a little bit of a change but at least it’s a dry heat. The U.S. system is a little different to the UK and Australian systems but there are also a lot of similarities, something that has eased my transition to working at UNLV.

Before UNLV

I received my undergraduate degree at the University of Edinburgh, a master’s degree at Camborne School of Mines, and my Ph.D. at the University of Leicester, before spending nearly eight years at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.

Growing up

I grew up in West Yorkshire, in northern England; the best bit of the UK (although I’m pretty biased given I’m a proud Yorkshireman).

What inspired you to get into your field?

I was good at geography at school but I wanted to focus on the physical aspect of the subject rather than the human aspect. Studying geoscience seemed the natural way to do this and it has turned out pretty well.

Your area of research

I’m an economic geologist in a very broad sense. My main area of study is understanding the geological processes that form ore deposits and how we can use this knowledge to develop techniques to find new mineral deposits. I also undertake research in igneous petrology and magmatism, the environmental impact of mining, and mineral economics and global metal resources.

What do you find most interesting about your field?

That’s a difficult one. I find a huge range of things interesting about geoscience and the way the Earth works. Geoscience and economic geology in particular is a field that is so interconnected with other fields and with the way we live that it is difficult to pin down one single aspect. And that’s what I love about it — no single piece of research nor one single day is the same as the next.

Tell us about an object in your office that has significance for you

Given I’m a geologist it has to be a rock, really. I have a sample of chalcopyrite-bearing rock from an area of Canada called Sudbury. The rock itself isn’t hugely attractive; some shiny sections that contain exposed, brassy colored sulfide minerals. The area it is from hosts world-class nickel, copper, and platinum group element mineralization that formed some 1,849 million years ago, which is fairly remarkable in itself. But the nature of the processes that formed this deposit set it apart — the mineralization at Sudbury formed as a result of a meteorite impact, namely the second largest meteorite impact known on Earth.

The unique combination of processes that formed this deposit is certainly thought-provoking but for me as a geologist the thing that makes the rock sample in my office significant is the concept that we can take that rock, analyze it and others, and determine that the mineralization in this area must have happened as a result of such an unusual combination of geological processes. If we can unravel this mystery using the evidence provided by rocks like this, then there is no reason why we can’t unravel any other significantly complex geological problem.

Tell us about a time in your life when you have been daring.

One time that springs to mind is doing geological fieldwork in Nunavik in northern Quebec. The camp we were based at was remote and field teams were flown out from camp and back every day by helicopter. Efficiency and fuel costs, etc., mean that the helicopter doesn’t shut down between each pick up and drop off, so getting into and out of a helicopter with the blades spinning on rough ground gets the adrenalin going a bit. It’s safe if you know what you are doing and we had a skilled pilot and experienced geologists but I’m fairly tall (6 feet 4 inches) and the noise, downdraft, and uneven ground all made it a little interesting at times.

Tips for success

Work hard, don’t be afraid to collaborate with people outside of your immediate field, and don’t be blinkered. If someone comes to talk to you about some science that is outside of your current focus, don’t dismiss them but listen to them and seriously consider getting involved. Some of my most productive research projects have happened because I’ve answered an email from someone outside of my field, whereas others who were on the same emails ignored the opportunity.

Advice for geoscience students

Get out there and see some rocks! Don’t be afraid of fieldwork and travel — you learn far more at times in the field than you do in lectures or labs.

Outside work

I enjoy sport (watching and playing when I get the time) and hiking. I’m also a big fan of craft beer — the USA and Las Vegas in particular have some excellent local breweries and I’m slowly getting to know some of them around here.