MDRU graduates Leif Bailey, Dave Cox and Tim Wrighton, with researchers Murray Allan and Jim Mortensen, take a break at the Golden Saddle Saloon on Kinross’s White Gold property in 2010.

The University of British Columbia’s Mineral Deposit Research Unit (MDRU) has amassed an impressive list of alumni over its 25-year history. Since 1990, the industry-funded research institute has trained 120 graduates for diverse roles in mineral exploration across British Columbia, Yukon and beyond. The names of MDRU alumni are linked to many discoveries made in the last 20 years, and the global impact of graduates, senior researchers and industry professionals trained through MDRU courses is immeasurable.

“Research is one thing, but the highly trained people that go into the industry are our biggest contribution. Many past MDRU geologists are now in senior technical, management and consulting roles in both major and junior companies,” says MDRU director Craig Hart.

Hart has been director for seven years and follows in some impressive footsteps. Over the last quarter of a century, MDRU has been directed by John McDonald (1989-1991), John Thompson (1991-1998), Ian Thompson (1999) and Richard Tosdal (1999-2008). Each director has guided important interactions between students and industry, and has helped provide the professional development courses for which MDRU is known.

“Although it is difficult to make direct connections between our research and a [particular] discovery, many industry geologists have indicated that our research has changed the way they explore or how they make decisions, so we are clearly contributing to lowering the risk and increasing the success of the exploration process,” says Hart.

A deeper understanding

The ability to study in depth the science of a mineral deposit is a luxury that company geologists seldom have time for, but connecting students to companies for this purpose is an MDRU specialty.

One of MDRU’s first graduates, Tina Roth (M.Sc., 1993; PhD, 2002), carried out what is still considered one of the most complete studies of the Eskay Creek deposit in northwestern British Columbia.

“The ability to conduct research in a producing mine provided me with a great opportunity to observe all aspects of the mineralogy and controls on the deposit, and helped guide orebody modelling and drill targeting,” says Roth, currently a senior geologist with Teck Resources Limited.

This research model benefits both the exploration company and the student, providing the company with detailed research vital to understanding a deposit and the students with real-world experience.

Hands-on practical training is also one of the most valuable things Adam Simmons (M.Sc., 2005; PhD, 2013) took away from his time at MDRU . Simmons, along with fellow graduate Alan Wainwright (PhD, 2008) and the team at Kaminak Gold Corporation, received AME BC’s H.H. “Spud” Huestis Award for excellence in prospecting and mineral exploration in 2013 for their work on the Coffee gold deposit in Yukon.

“I learned the practical skills we needed to design and carry out the work at Coffee from my industry mentors during my master’s project,” says Simmons, now senior geologist, global copper, at Anglo American PLC. “Having industry mentors to check on your skills in the field is invaluable.”

Connecting the dots

Aside from these detailed, deposit-level studies, one of the biggest contributions MDRU has made to industry is in regional mapping and geochronology. From the Metallogenesis of the Iskut River Area project in the early 1990s to the Yukon-Alaska Metallogeny Project today, MDRU research teams have been connecting the dots between individual deposits on a regional scale for many years.

“There’s a huge amount of value in having someone like us playing this role,” explains Murray Allan, MDRU research associate, who manages the Yukon-Alaska Metallogeny Project. “We have the ability to focus on one problem without the distraction of running an exploration project. We have the luxury of being purely in the technical space and can devote all of our time to that.”

At the regional level, MDRU’s current focus is identifying rapid and cost-effective methods for prospecting around porphyry-type hydrothermal systems. By identifying trace metals as far as seven kilometres away, MDRU is hoping to characterize how metals are dispersed around these giant ore deposits.

Training beyond university

The results of these MDRU research projects aren’t locked away in academic journals and company reports, either. During its first 25 years, MDRU has provided more than 85 short courses to industry professionals, often with a hands-on field component. It now provides education and training to about 35 graduate students at any given time, and a team of eight senior researchers currently oversees about 25 projects around the globe.

Founded in British Columbia, MDRU is now an internationally recognized research group that is proud to be celebrating its silver anniversary.