Changing Minesets: Kathryn-Goodenough

10th May 2021

Kathryn Goodenough’s research focuses primarily on the broad area of magmatism and mineralisation. She has over 60 peer-reviewed papers published and has been involved in research on critical raw materials required for decarbonisation, since 2010. 

Kathryn joined BGS in 2001 and now is leading some of the Survey’s partnerships with geological surveys in developing countries. She is also Chief Editor for the Geological Society’s new journal Earth Science, Systems and Society (ES3) and is a member of the Geological Society Council.


Q: Why did you choose geology and earth sciences when you first started out?

AI chose geology because when I was at school, I was good at science, but I also really wanted to be outdoors, and I found that geology combines both. So, I went to pursue a degree in Earth Sciences and loved it! Afterwards, I decided to do a PhD, which kind of is a family thing. I applied for several PhDs, but I really wanted to focus on studying igneous rocks and the one that I decided to do had fieldwork in Greenland. And of course, the PhD focused on alkaline igneous rocks and rare earth elements (REE).

And that’s kind of from where everything else started. 

Q: What is your perspective of the mining industry as someone who’s coming from academia? 

A: Once I finished my PhD, I have spent three years working as a geologist for the Scottish Government, and then I started out at the British Geological Survey (BGS), almost 20 years ago now. At first, I did geological mapping in these big projects, in Scotland, Madagascar and in the United Arabic Emirates. I got to travel a lot and really enjoyed that. Geological mapping depends on so many things and is so important for explorations, but at BGS it was becoming less popular. 

After the 2010 rare earth element (REE) crisis, suddenly, my background in REE became more relevant. So, in the last 10 years that I have been working much more with the mining and exploration industries, because of the interest in critical raw materials, not just for the REE, but also for niobium, tantalum, lithium, caesium, etc. The sort of geology that I specialize in is important for the industry. So, that led me to work in a range of critical raw materials projects. And so, that brings me into the mining world. I have spent a bit of time in gold mines and copper mines, but a lot of my involvement is through these speciality metals. I tend to meet people in junior companies who are trying to keep their new ventures afloat. It is always hard at the beginning, and they need a good team to get them off the ground. The ones who are exploring these critical raw materials have quite a small market, so it is interesting to work with them, and it gives me a different perspective than someone who would work with one of the major mining companies.

Q: What do you like about working at BGS?

A: I have a lot of freedom since I am working at the intersection between academia and industry, and I think it is quite a good place to be right now. It means I am working independently; I am not looking for a particular commodity, and I can do the science to try and understand the mineral systems we are looking at as a whole. But if I would be working in a university, I would have huge commitments in terms of teaching and working with students, and it would be harder to spend so much time on a range of industry projects. 

Q: How do you manage to have two roles in BGS, one as a geologist and one as deputy director?

A: Well, on one side, I am a geologist, working on mineral resources, and on the other, I am the Deputy Director for BGS Global, which is the part of BGS that runs some of our international work. But in practice, the two jobs are not separate. There is a considerable amount of overlap. 

But unfortunately, I don’t get to do much fieldwork now, since my job has been shifted to the managerial end of things. I do not spend as much time as I would like looking at rocks, and I certainly don’t have enough lab time anymore. 

Q: What was/is one of your favourite projects of yours?

A: I have worked in a lot for different areas, but I’ve got to say a project I had in Morocco would be my favourite. I was very lucky to work there on studying the mineral systems close to Marrakech. 

And the project was actually not focused on REE. 

The city is really beautiful, as well. But the project was exciting. We’ve done some work on rare earth mobility in shear zones, but the interesting thing is the deformed volcanogenic massive sulphides (VMS) within those shear zones, which are really poorly understood. To the south, you got the mountains, which are full of mineral deposits, and to the north, you’ve got the Variscan belt, which is also full of mineral deposits. The individual deposits are well understood, but the complete mineral systems and how everything fits together is not. So, I was really lucky to go and collaborate on this project with somebody from the University of Marrakech and Managem. We got the opportunity to work on a variety of projects, but particularly on these shear zones with deformed VMS deposits and that are potentially associated with pegmatites for lithium. There are all sorts of things going on there, and I’d like to go back and do some more work there. 

Q: Why do you think mining still has such a bad reputation in terms of sustainability?

A: It is really challenging, I think. Everything now is focused on decarbonisation and moving to a lower CO2 emission level. To achieve lower emission levels we need electric cars, renewable energy, and other technologies. Mining is required to produce all the raw material that we need for the infrastructures. 

We keep saying mining is essential, but whenever there is a story covering a mining disaster, or wrongdoing people hear only that. And the good stories about the sector don’t make it on broad media channels. I have been to several mines where actually the biodiversity around the mine is amazing. In many African countries hunting and subsistence agriculture is occupying more and more land. And is usually around the mines, where you start getting better biodiversity because it isn’t touched by agriculture or hunting. 

One of the PhD students I am working with is researching the deforestation around the mines in Madagascar, and it became quite clear that the mines themselves didn’t cause much damage. The problem is the people that come working in the mines, which will end up clearing the land to build houses near the mine. 

So, a lot of the companies are trying to do the right thing. At times, when companies get it wrong in a big way, it gets picked up by the media. And I am not really sure what could be done to change that so that mining could be perceived in a better light. But I know there is no modern world without mining. Even things that are only grown come with their own biodiversity problems and challenges. I think, ultimately, all we need to do is to just keep trying to do better. 

Q: How do you think the mining industry changed in terms of the roles that geologists can have and their professional mobility?

A: I would say that exploration is one of the few areas where it is still possible to be a geologist. You can still be on the field and be in the core-shed, in some cases for a large part of your career. Particularly with these junior companies, you can see some experienced exploration geologists, which have knowledge of the business part, but they are still working on the field and seeing rocks. But I think you need to decide if you want to stay on that path or not. If you want a stable job, you would probably choose to move to an office job, but I think there is flexibility, and it depends on the person.

Q: Did you see the industry change in the last couple of years in terms of gender equality?

A: I think women are getting more recognizable and stronger in the industry. It is relatively common now to have women in exploration camps and on mine sites, doing all sorts of jobs. And I do think it was the case even 20 years ago, but it is certainly more common now. 

I think one aspect that has improved is having a career in the industry while being a mother at the same time, at least in some countries. Personally, it has not been that difficult to have the career development that a man would have. But I think that what tends to happen is that there is an expectation that the woman will assume most of the caring duties for the child. At least in the UK, paternity leave is still insignificant compared with maternity leave and it is expected that the woman will only work part-time, that will be less likely to travel, and that will be more likely to have to go home earlier. 

Countries like Sweden had however changed that. There you have both parents bearing almost equal responsibility for the children. So, I think the difficulty comes with the general mindset revolving around the working mother, and that is not only happening in the mining sector, but because of the nature of the job, it really can become a major issue.

Q: How do you think technology impacts scientific collaboration nowadays, especially in terms of communication in a (post)pandemic world?

A: When I started out, I was working in an office of 100 people, and there was only one computer with an internet connection. I am from the generation that grew up without email, and all the technology that followed had become mainstream while I was working. You’d always meet people in person and have to travel to meet with the people that you’d work with. And even though we’ve had a lot of our research done using communication technology before, it wasn’t until 2020 when we’ve seen this massive change. Now, everybody just assumes meetings are going to be on Zoom, rather than face to face. 

And it does really help people in developing countries. Many have skipped the phase of having to work around desktop computers and they went straight to smartphones and portable devices. So, people are much more connected. And I think that is great! But ultimately, you still need to meet people face to face to get to know them a bit. And of course, you’d still have to go to look at the rock in person!

Q: What do you think the next big thing is in geosciences and mining?

A: Obviously, big data and machine learning are important technologies, because they deal with the collected data easier and eliminate some errors factors. But if the data is bad, the result will be bad. So, if you don’t really understand that you’re applying the algorithms to, technologies like that are not so useful.

In my opinion, it’s not a new one at all. It is the mineral systems approach, which is widely used in Australia and is also used elsewhere in the world. But for many of the critical raw materials is really just catching on. It helps to understand the key targeting features that you’re actually looking for and target prospective deposits. And I think that sort of approach is working extremely well in Australia and Canada, but in Africa, it hasn’t really been adopted on a larger scale, and I think that is the real way forward. 

Q: Finally, what would be your advice for anyone who is starting a career in geosciences?

A: Well, my piece of advice has been out there for a long while, and it can’t work for anybody, but I would definitely recommend it. See as many rocks as possible - be it in the core-store, on the field, in datasets, or as samples in the laboratory - to solidify your practical experience. Getting that practical experience is important. 

If you are going to an exploration project and you are talking to somebody who has spent time getting that practical experience, you will see them immediately looking at things with a well-rounded perspective and using that experience to notice things that might be missed otherwise. It is all about having seen things before.