Geology, industry experience and the Global Change Scholars Program – a conversation with Rocío Vargas Soto

28 September 2020

Technical expertise and academic rigour will be key to developing sustainable solutions to the minerals industry’s challenges and at the Sustainable Minerals Institute (SMI) we have found both those things in PhD Student Rocío Vargas Soto.

In 2018 Rocio left her home country of Chile to join SMI’s W.H. Bryan Mining & Geology Research Centre (BRC) and begin a PhD under the supervision of Professor Rick Valenta and Dr Cathy Evans.

We sat down to speak with Rocio about her research, her time in Industry, and what it means to be enrolled in The University of Queensland’s (UQ) Global Change Scholars Program.

Industry and academia

“My plan had always been to do a PhD, but I also knew that I wanted to work in industry beforehand because I thought that practical experience in projects and perspective on what was important was valuable.

“So before I started my PhD I worked for three companies, starting as a technical representative for IMDEX, an Australian company that creates technology for mining.

“This was great because it introduced me to cutting edge technology and software, and we would give support to South America which helped me build a strong network.

“I then joined to Exploraciones Mineras, a subsidiary of CODELCO which finds new deposits and evaluate them and, if they are valuable, hands them over to CODELCO.

“I really liked that position a lot – the exploration team would send their drill core to us and we would characterise it to understand better the deposit. It also contributed that I had excellent mentorship too.

“Finally, it was when I was working with NuevaUnion that I met with Rick Valenta, because my friend who was already with SMI let me know that the BRC was looking for geologists to do a PhD.

“I let NuevaUnion know that I planned to go to Australia and that there was a possibility that I could work with their data when I was there. They agreed with that and provided support, which is fantastic because I develop my studies in my country though a collaboration with SMI-ICE Chile.


“In my PhD I am attempting to use the information we generate in geology to learn the characteristics of deposits and predict how that will affect performance in the processing stages.  

“There is a lot of data that could be very useful for processing but, in order to use it, a geologist needs to put it into a format that the metallurgists can use and generate value.

“Hyperspectral images, images that are generally taken from the air with satellites or drones and are used to look at the different materials in the earth and their mineralogy, are particularly valuable.

“This imaging technology can be applied to a drill core, where we scan the core while taking images.

“Companies are already scanning their cores but they are only using some data, when really there is plenty more data you can get - almost too much data.

“One of the aims of my PhD is to create a methodology that can identify what data is important and collect information from the images of rocks.

“SMI is a great place to be doing this research - my supervisors are great and always there when I need them.

The Global Change Scholars Program 

“UQ’s Global Change Scholars Program is designed to support future research leaders by introducing them to global trends, the challenges and opportunities they present, and how to develop sustainable solutions.

“First year PhD students with the UQ scholarship are invited to apply, so I did, and was accepted into the program in May 2019.

“It has five modules, the first of which involved a trip to Lady Elliot Island and the publishing of a paper, and throughout the first year you have seminars and workshops, maybe three a month.

“Right now I am working through the final module, the Start-Up Academy with UQ Ventures, and after that I will be graduating.

“It’s been a great experience, I have loved it. You meet so many other students, who are all super bright, and you learn about a lot of things that you might forget once you start engineering.

“All the workshops and sessions helped me to reflect about my research as how it could apply to global challenges from a broader perspective.

“As geologists, we are in very good positions to bring about change. If at some point I am the leader of a project, many of the decisions I make can affect the management of water, communities and even climate change.

“I will definitely be taking the learnings from the Program with me through my career.