Endless childhood rock collections used to drive Lauren’s mum round the bend. But the geology connection wasn’t made until the very first lesson of a fill-in geology paper she took at 17. Lauren walked out of that lesson with her future sorted.
And just four years ago Lauren arrived in NZ from England to start her PhD. “NZ is such an interesting place for geologists, and because it’s so young you can see geology in action. Processes happening on the Alpine Fault now have analogies to those in the Himalayas dating back hundreds of millions of years. My most prized possession is a hand sample of a rock from NZ’s Alpine Fault where you can see the line dividing the two tectonic plates. It’s a mere 5 million years old, which is just a baby in geological time”.
Macraes gold mine in Central Otago has been Lauren’s home away from home over the course of her research on the tungsten ore mineral called scheelite. The mine’s current method to extract gold means the tungsten is thrown out in the process, which seems a complete waste when it is widely used in applications ranging from light bulb filaments to steel alloy in heavy machinery.
So Lauren has been beavering away analysing the existence of tungsten from the microscopic to macro levels, determining the relationship between gold and tungsten, and devising a technique where the two can be economically extracted together. Much of her time has been looking at microscopic cross-sections which radiate a kaleidoscope of colours, patterns and shapes, and can tell her things like the temperature and date when the mineral was formed (just don’t ask me how).
“When I look down microscope my heart sings. It’s partly the colours, but it’s also all the information I can just tell from looking at it which is the amazing bit. As long as you give me a rock I will never be bored – I’ll be occupied for hours”.