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Accretionary Wedge #38: Back to School for Applied Geology

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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An “Accretionary wedge” is formed from sediments that are accreted onto the non-subducting tectonic plate at a convergent plate boundary, but it is also the title of the monthly gathering of the geoblogosphere – where various posts became accreted to form an insightful discussion to a proposed topic. The suggested topic of the actual “Accretionary wedge #38” focuses on geosciences education and careers in our modern society. Speaking of geology most people envisage scientists  climbing on volcanoes, scientists studying earthquakes or other natural disasters and scientists searching for rocks to find minerals (and discover new ones) -  as a recent textbooks summarizes:

The spectacular eruption of a volcano, the terror brought by an earthquake, the magnificent scenery of a mountain valley, and the destruction created by a landslide all are subjects for the geologist.
The study of geology deals with many fascinating and practical questions about our physical environment.”
LUTGENS 2009 “Essentials of Geology

The last sentence emphasizes – but still underestimates – an important part of geology, maybe even the most important: applied or engineering geology.

Fig.1. A landslide destroyed a bridge and threatens buildings on the edge – Who you gonna call?? APPLIED GEOLOGISTS…

Many geology degree courses offers introduction into sedimentology, stratigraphy, geophysics and petrography – but virtually forget to teach the skills to use geology to solve specific engineering problems. Methods in academia and private business have some similarities, but also significant differences. This results in various conflicts and problems in the later life and work of an unprepared geology student as freelancer, especially in these economic difficult times when you must learn to swim in the ice-cold water very fast.

So here some education-tips that I experienced in this traumatic transition between academia and (…real) work:

-    In science acquisition of data, the used method or results are the basements of every work and discussed in lengthy in the final publication – if a scientists wish to repeat your experiment these are important information. Many students working for the first time in the private sector apply this schema to their work. However time is money – lengthy discussions or even speculations are not of interest for your client – a waste of time for him and a waste of credibility for you – watch you language.
-    In science you have to present to an interested community a problem you solved. If you work in the private sector it’s slightly different: Your client has a problem – he hired you to solve it. You have to write a report that focuses fast on the problem in an effective way, understandable by the client (that in most cases has no or little knowledge on geology) and also important by the authorities (!). A short abstract of the location of the (construction) site, resulting problem and applicable regulations introducing the report is OK. This makes your report identifiable to authorities or a department also in future times.
-    Most problems arouse from friable rocks or soils on the construction site. Geologists love good outcrops of hard rocks – unfortunately people tend to build on flat planes or areas covered by thick soils. Classic geology doesn’t likely deal with soils or weathered rocks – and pedology is often associated to agricultural sciences, biology or geography, however basic knowledge of soils and unconsolidated quaternary (don´t call it dirt !!) sediments is essential also for the applied geologist.
-    The geotechnical parameters and mechanic properties of soils are for interest to the engineer that must calculate mitigation measures. A geologist must develop a geomodel of the underground of appropriate extent and provide the necessary numbers and values – know your math !
-    Similar to a classic scientific investigation a geomodel is based on the available data. In the private sector available money and time to gather these data are even more limited than in the public sector. Unfortunately a client will be reluctant to pay for more than one test hole; you will have to convince him to invest in security. You must find the appropriate proportions between necessary test holes or other methods to construct a good geomodel (remember that you will be responsible for it) and time/costs -factors.
- There is often an unnecessary rivalry between geologists and engineers. Geology is not (always) an exact science – there will be always uncertainties or risks in the developed geomodel. Engineers like exact numbers and calculations and will see this uncertainty as weakness. A geologist should however minimize as much as possible this risk by adopting all available (and economic possible) methods and emphasize his results. Be proud of your work – geology is per definition not an exact science as mathematics, this however doesn’t mean that it is sloppy.

In sum: Education in general geology courses should provide students with the necessary skills to address and solve problems. Basic knowledge is necessary, but simply providing a list of facts that must be learned is worthless – especially in modern times, when simple facts or numbers are available online. Students must be aware that the private sector demands exact, however fast and cheap (…unfortunately) results. It’s a rough terrain, with a lot of work and concurrence and too often ignored by society. On the bright side it is a work that demands motivation, experience and knowledge to approach various, often very variable, problems.

David Bressan About the Author: Freelance geologist dealing with quaternary outcrops interested in the history and the development of geological concepts through time. Follow on Twitter @David_Bressan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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