Christopher Wnuk

Sector: Research

Field: Science

Occupation: Geologist

Meet Christopher Wnuk, Greenfields Exploration Geologist at Transformation Advisors Group.

What is your earliest memory of wanting to be a scientist?

I’m not sure I can ever remember a time that I did NOT want to be a scientist – to understand the natural world around me.  Like every kid, I was fascinated by dinosaurs, so when I wanted a bedtime story, I wanted my mom to read from the dinosaur books that I was getting for Christmas.  I wanted to go to the Franklin Institute and the Smithsonian to see the dinosaur bones.  When I was 7 or 8, a family friend brought me one of the spectacular white plant fossils (an Alethopteris as I came to learn years later) from St. Claire in Pennsylvania’s anthracite fields. Even at that young age, it fascinated me to think that this came from a plant that was alive once, and then to think how long ago that was.  From 5th grade on, I won every science fair I entered in grade school.  I looked forward to every science period and dreaded every sentence I had to diagram and every state capitol I had to memorize!  I knew early in grade school that I would someday become a biologist of some kind, but it never occurred to me that I would ultimately become an expert on dead plants!

What steps did you take to have a career path as a scientist in the industry? 

Although every step that I took led me to my chosen career, the path was filled with many unexpected twists and turns and an exceptional number of happy accidents. From the time I started my undergraduate studies until I finished my Ph.D. 11 years later, I took all sorts of excursions from a direct path to graduation.  Each of those trips taught me a valuable lesson that has had use for me again and again over the years. I started as an ecology/environmental studies double major.  I always figured that I would work for an environmental consulting firm after I graduated. I even spent a summer volunteering with a local environmental consultancy.  I discovered that the work was not particularly satisfying. The assignments were formulaic because, by law, they had to conform to rigidly established content guidelines.

I was a commuting student and managed to avoid accumulating student loans by helping my parents run their business, when I was not in class.  As a result, scheduling classes efficiently was a key concern.  In my junior year, I had an unfilled slot at an awkward time. All I could find was a geology course that would fit.  I was already familiar with the geology department through the Environmental Studies major, so I signed up for Stratigraphy 206.  Taking that one class completely changed my educational objectives.  I added geology as a third major and an extra year to my undergraduate studies.  Coincidentally, Hermann Pfefferkorn, who taught stratigraphy (and paleobotany), came to be my Ph.D. advisor.

By my senior year, the Department’s Graduate Advisor recommended that I stay on to earn a Geology master’s degree. During this time, I continued helping my parents run their business, spent months camped out in the swamps of the Orinoco Delta working as a field assistant for a friend’s Ph.D., took a semester off to teach intro physical geology to non-science majors at Rutgers University, Camden campus, and took another semester off to study the origin of the clays used to manufacture pottery found at an archaeological dig in Turkey.

The energy and minerals industry is cyclic. As I finished my master’s, I was scheduled to join a coal mining company to work on an exploration program in Utah. Two weeks before I was to join, I was notified that I had been laid off due to collapsing coal prices.  I convinced them to hire me as a field assistant.  By mid-December, I was sitting at 10,000 feet in 15 feet of snow logging core for a mine that would never be built.  My contract was being renewed week to week.  Still, it was a great learning experience. I learned that it was a lot more interesting exploring solvable problems than freezing at a drill rig working on a problem that had a foregone conclusion.  I left Utah near Christmas to complete my Ph.D. in paleobotany/paleoecology.

My next move was to join the US Geological Survey to conduct post-doctoral research on the sedimentology and paleoecology of coal–forming environments and to continue working with USGS conducting research to improve coal exploration models.  Because of my interest in working internationally, a lot of this research was conducted overseas.  This research ultimately led to my team’s discovery of the 200 billion ton Thar coal deposit in Pakistan during a USAID funded program.

For me, the draw to work internationally was so strong and the opportunities somewhat limited at USGS that I left the Survey in the mid-90s and I have worked as an independent consultant ever since.  I do lots of greenfields exploration work and I manage geology and environment related project work funded by organizations like USAID, World Bank, Asian Development Bank.

What were some challenges or obstacles you had to overcome to pursue your career choices?

Working as an independent consultant can be stressful.  I always have to be thinking where my next job will be coming from, and I always have to be looking at numerous different possibilities. You never know which opportunity might become real. On the other hand, working this way gives me control over which jobs I accept.  The exploration sector is price sensitive.  When prices are going up, everyone wants to hire you; when prices are falling, nobody wants to know you!  For me, the key to thriving in this sort of environment is to maintain a broad repertoire of skills that allows me to fill many different types of alternative roles (project manager, trainer, technical advisor/expert, etc.) when exploration work is scarce.  This allows me to take short-term assignments funded by various donors like USAID, development banks, or even other governments.  From time to time I run into some stressful dry periods, but I have always found that opportunities abound as long as you are willing to keep an open mind.

What skills and knowledge, technical or non-technical, do you use in your work? What type of background do you need to be successful in your field?

Since I left school, incredible technology has been developed to make exploration for minerals, oil, and gas much more efficient and cost effective.  Because of its nature, coal is not detected by most remote sensing geophysical techniques, except for borehole geophysical tools used in late stage exploration once drilling starts.  Because I do so much greenfields work, and because I tend to specialize in sedimentary deposits whose occurrence and distribution follows predictable stratigraphic and sedimentological principles, I just need to apply what I learned in stratigraphy and sedimentology at school, refer to the knowledge I gained over the years doing related project work, and add in some common sense when I am in the field or studying Google Earth imagery, and I have a good idea how to lay out an exploration program in untested territory. For me the old ways work best, and I would be right at home floating down the Colorado with Powell. Not that I mind an assist from modern technology whenever it is available!

What’s the most exciting part of your research?

Back in the day when I did paleobotanical research, I studied the forest plant communities that grew in tropical Carboniferous swamps. I specialized in studying the moment of transition from clastic sedimentation to peat accumulation.  This was made easy for me because I worked in Pennsylvania’s anthracite fields.  These are almost isoclinally folded, so the forest floors now stand vertically and are exposed when coal is stripped.  One particular coal, the Mammoth, is regionally extensive and can be traced throughout the coal fields.  This bedding surface often preserves nearly intact fossil tree compressions, and it is not unusual to come across whole forests of fallen trees containing trunks 15 m in length or longer. Since these trees and the forest understory and ground cover are preserved in place, we can conduct all sorts of paleoecological studies. And when studying the Mammoth bed, you can literally walk a 100 km transect through a Carboniferous swamp.  When I was in the field standing in front of these highwalls covered with these immense tree trunks, it would take my breath away thinking I was standing in the middle of a 300 million year old jungle just imagining what it was like when it was still alive. And in at least one case, imagining what must have happened when it was destroyed overnight during a typhoon.

Today my work is different.  I do greenfields exploration, but the excitement is just as great every time I discover a huge economic deposit that has been sitting more or less in plain sight but never recognized till I came along with my team to find it using fairly basic geologic tools.

What is the most discouraging part of your research and how do you overcome this limitation?

A significant number of my assignments are in conflict, post-conflict, or otherwise insecure environments. I have been working in Afghanistan for almost 15 years.  I can say categorically that there is NO comparably sized territory ANYWHERE in the world that contains the resource wealth resident in Afghanistan.  The teams that I work with have proposed village-scale resource development projects that could put thousands if not tens of thousands of people to work in the space of several months to a year or two.  In addition, we have proposed strategies to bring existing illegal mining into compliance with the national Mining Law. My biggest frustration is that so few people among the primary donors to Afghanistan understand the mining industry.  Consequently donors don’t know what they need to do to devise effective interventions to help the Afghan Government better develop and administer its natural resource wealth.  Moreover donors do not know who they should hire to give them the advice they need to design workable interventions, and as a result. Almost nothing has been done to develop Afghanistan’s mineral economy.  This problem is not unique to Afghanistan.  I have confronted this issue time and again during my career in country after country across the globe.

How have your friends/relatives who are not scientists reacted to your career/research?

Most of my friends and a good part of my family are geologists.  Of those who are not, all of them enjoy the stories I have to tell when I come back from a project (camping for months in a native village in the middle of the jungle, camping in the ruins of the world’s largest fort and former leper colony, getting shipwrecked, dealing with kidnappings and terrorist bombings), but all of them shake their head and wonder why I do this kind of work.

What is something you wish you had known earlier in your career? What advice do you have for students considering a career in the Earth and space sciences?

I have no regrets how my career developed, and I am not sure I would do very much differently.  For me, every time the door closed on one opportunity another door opened.  I don’t plan to ever retire.  I am having too much fun doing what I do to consider retirement a viable option.  One thing I do wish that I followed more closely is the development of 3D deposit modeling software.  Understanding such software is not that critical to the work I do, but every once in a while I come across an interesting consulting opportunity that I can’t pursue because I lack the necessary software expertise.

It has been my experience that geology is barely taught at the elementary and high school levels. I suspect that most of us come to geology as a result of our experiences during our undergraduate years. Anyone who has made it far enough to be reading this newsletter already has geology in their blood.  Follow your heart. Latch on to that aspect of geology that fascinates you and learn it.  Opportunities abound – just enter “geology” on any job site.  If you want to see the parts of the world that no one visits while you are working to help people, you can’t do better than to become a geologist.