Hunting gold and meteors

Andy Tomkins – Geologist

As a lecturer at Geosciences, Andy Tomkins is energised when watching his first year students gradually awaken to the excitement of geoscience on field trips around Victoria. They discover the way rocks have formed and learn about western Victoria’s “recently active” volcanoes.

New Zealand provides a fascinating field trip for students who are lucky enough to study with Andy, a geologist whose research takes him far beyond the lab. In fact, Andy’s students often look up to the stars and then way down into the Earth’s molten core for the secrets of our universe.

In New Zealand, third-year students study actively forming volcanoes, the dramatic change to the landscape after the earthquakes around Christchurch and the steady progress of glaciers.

Those who continue on Andy’s amazing journey into their third year of geoscience go meteor-hunting on the Nullarbor Plain or to Broken Hill to analyse “a bunch of ancient hills eroding away with complex geology within”. Back in the lab, Andy and the students will open the meteors to reveal the secrets of the solar system.

Geology is unique in its scope. Few scientific endeavours career from meteors to specks of gold hidden under the Earth’s surface. As a specialist in economic geology, Andy worked for Rio Tinto before choosing the life of an academic – for about a third of the pay. He’s an expert at locating gold and diamonds, but nothing compares to the excitement of teaching students at Monash how rocks are formed when the Earth is squashed and heated.

As a scientist, Andy knows he’s contributing to international knowledge as well as educating the next generation of geologists. “I am working out stuff that no one else has ever figured out,” Andy says.

Andy’s constant sense of wonder is currently being directed to the way gold moves from the Earth’s deep crust to the upper crust and how gold deposits then form.

His students are exposed to the big questions about the origins of the universe. And they’ve played a part in finding answers, recently picking up 36 meteorites on the Nullarbor Plain. “The students love cutting them up and studying the really old processes that happened. They hold a record of history in their hands.

“We are looking back to the first 5.5 billion years of the solar system.”

It’s a little-known fact that newly qualified geologists are paid more than graduates of medicine or law due to their capacity to work for mineral industry.

But not all are hunting gold and diamonds. They may prefer to survey specific areas, protecting humans from volcanoes, earthquakes or tsunamis. They also check environments before dams or bridges are built to ensure they are stable enough to bear loads.

“As a geologist, you have a perspective on how the biosphere has changed over time. Dinosaurs arose as a result of a catastrophic event that wiped out 95 per cent of life; then dinosaurs were wiped out and mammals arose. Geologic time is broken up into catastrophic and rebuilding events. We can use what we know of the Earth’s past to understand what is coming.”

As a geologist, you have a perspective on how the biosphere has changed over time. We can use what we know of the Earth’s past to understand what is coming.