Featured Explorer: Carolyn Relf

Published: 08/03/2013

5 August 2009

By Virginia Heffernan, Earth Explorer

Carolyn Relf: Mentoring and motivating young geologists

Thirty years after finding inspiration at a suburban Toronto high school, Carolyn Relf is paying it forward.

The 46-year-old director of the Yukon Geological Survey is turning on the next generation of geoscientists to the thrill of field work and, in the process, making them more marketable to the mineral sector.

“She is a huge motivator of young geologists,” says Pamela Strand, President and CEO of diamond explorer Shear Minerals Ltd.

Students lacking in field skills

Relf’s interest in hands on training was sparked at a meeting of industry, government and university geoscientists a few years ago, when she was chief geologist for Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) for the Northwest Territories (NWT).

During the meeting, industry representatives were lamenting the fact that most geology graduates couldn’t map a rock formation if their lives depended on it, while the academics countered that universities could no longer shoulder the cost and liability associated with running field schools that teach this essential skill.

Relf’s desire to fill to the yawning gap led her to the the Innovation and Knowledge Fund, a program offered by INAC that provides grants to projects that spur economic development in the north.

UofA field school initiative

She approached the University of Alberta to set up a field school using the INAC funding to kick-start the first year of the program.The school provides the opportunity for six undergraduates – the most a Twin Otter can accommodate along with instructors and equipment – to acquire valuable field mapping experience.

Unlike traditional field schools that send undergraduates back to the same mapping location year after year, the students are deployed to different areas of the Northwest Territories each year to fill gaps in existing maps or complete more detailed study to resolve specific problems. Participants can then use the data and samples they collect as the basis for their fourth year undergraduate thesis.

The students have the satisfaction of contributing to the geological knowledge of Canada, while the NWT Geoscience Office benefits by updating maps and recruiting candidates for further academic training.

“We were always on the hunt for potential grad students and after a few days at the field school, you could spot who would have good potential to go on to do graduate work” says Relf.

High school teacher the catalyst

Although she developed a love of the outdoors while hiking and camping with her family as a child, it wasn’t until Relf’s final years at Glenforest Secondary school in Mississauga, Ontario that she discovered a passion for geology. She credits John Reid, a geography teacher trained as a geologist, with the inspiration. She liked the sound of the 3-day field trip he took to Bancroft with his Grade 12 students and signed up for the course so that she could participate.

“He was one of those teachers who inspired people and had lots of neat collections and stories about the bush and mapping rocks,” says Relf. “That inspired me to take a first year geology class and I just went from there.”

Relf completed her undergraduate training at Queen’s University in Kingston, On and went on to acquire an M.Sc. from Memorial University in St. John’s, Nfld. She later returned to Queen’s to complete a PhD and has spent 20 summers mapping in the field. She joined the Yukon Geological Survey in January 2008.

Encouraging geoscientists

Ever since her daughter was born eight years ago, Relf has been spending less time in the field and more time ensuring that the northern geological surveys maintain a national profile. She encourages her geoscientists to attend conferences and publish papers as much as possible. And she continues to support up and coming geologists.

“There is going to be a shortage of geoscientists, so we also put a lot of effort into coming up with thesis projects for students and helping them to find funding,” she says.

Looking to the future, she worries that geoscience is becoming too specialized and encourages students to “cross-pollinate” among the sub-disciplines including environmental geology and economic geology.

“Earth systems, the atmosphere and the hydrosphere are all linked,” she says. “The bedrock geology controls the surficial geology and the surficial geology dictates the flora that grows and so on. People tend to forget the links between them if they are just looking at one aspect of geoscience.”

Relf spends her spare time exploring the multitude of hiking and biking trails around Whitehorse and has recently joined a women’s ice hockey league to make the long Yukon winter more bearable.