Structural Geologist, David McNamara @mcnamadd: A Day in the GeoLife Series
NAME: David McNamara
CURRENT TITLE: Structural Geologist
AREA OF EXPERTISE: Energy and Tectonics Research
YEARS OF EXPERIENCE: 6 years post-PhD
EDUCATION: Undergraduate degree from Trinity College Dublin, Ireland and PhD from University of Liverpool, United Kingdom.
What’s your job like?
Awesome and diverse. I’ve been working with GNS Science, New Zealand in their Natural Resources Division for just over six years. Currently, I’m working with the Departments of Petroleum Geoscience and Geothermal Science. In both departments, I carry out research and commercial projects on a number of structural geology related issues. Usually they involve characterising the stress, fault and fracture systems of a resource reservoir and using that data to help understand regional tectonics and crustal fluid flow. I use a number of skills and techniques including field mapping and trenching of active faults, analysing data acquired from downhole logging in petroleum and geothermal wells, looking at thin sections of vein mineralogy in scanning electron microscopes, and working with geophysicists to identify structural patterns in their results.
What’s a typical day like?
The great thing about my work is that no day is really typical. There are the usual day-to-day activities like checking e-mails and Twitter or reading the latest research papers in my field, but when it comes to my scientific work, my day will depend on what project I have on my desk at the time. If I am working on a commercial project for an energy company, I usually dive straight in and spend whole weeks at a time getting to work on their data. The sooner they get my analysis, the sooner they can make decisions about future drilling and field planning projects. When it comes to my own research, I usually spend the majority of my days in four ways: 1) collecting crystallographic and chemical data on vein minerals using high-powered microscopes; 2) crushing rocks in various ways to find out their strength properties; 3) being glued to my computer screen as I look at acoustic and resistivity images of the geology of geothermal and oil and gas wells; or 4) writing up my research for journal publication. Sometimes any one of those activities can occupy me for weeks at a time. Sometimes I will alternate days I work on an activity and sometimes I work a half day each on a couple of them. The flexibility of this is what makes my job as a geologist great and keeps me engaged and interested in what I do.
The most fun part of being a geologist for me is the fieldwork. I know few geologists who don’t love getting into the field with their compass clinometer and rock hammer and getting to grips with the geology and landscape they’re investigating. Whether I’m out collecting rock samples for lab experiments, scraping the walls of an active fault trench clean so I can see bedding and fault planes, or on a drill site with the wireline logging engineers, being able to refer to the outdoors as my ‘office’ is wonderful. If I can’t be in the field, I love being in the lab gathering data as it comes. Every new dataset, image or analysis gives you one more clue to the research question you’re trying to answer.
As an early career researcher (ECR), the biggest challenge in my job is carving out a chunk of the research landscape for myself and getting established as a go-to expert in my field. This goes for commercial client work as much as it does for research. Getting a reputation as a knowledgeable and efficient service provider can take a while but is worthwhile as it can open all sorts of doors to interesting datasets and funding streams that you can utilise to enhance your research career. The competition in research funding is fierce, and honestly, it can really get you down at times, especially when a project you love and have so much passion for does not get funding. But you shake it off, get back into the mix and persevere. Very importantly, keep your mind open to opportunities and collaboration.
What’s your advice to students?
For undergraduates, I can’t encourage you enough to read around the topics you learn about in lectures. Don’t restrict yourselves to your course notes and lecturer’s slides. If you really enjoy a particular lecture topic get on Google Scholar and search it. Read a few papers and really see how the basics of what you learned in class are applied to geological questions. Ask your lecturers for advice on this or ask your department to host a seminar on efficient scientific reading. Also, get involved in your department, ask about assisting with your researchers’ or demonstrators’ projects, ask if you can attend a geological conference, join your University’s geological society, and most importantly… go on the field trips. They will be some of your best and most lasting memories of your degree and are excellent training for testing out all the theory you learned in class. For those seeking to do a PhD, make sure you really like the idea of the project before signing up. That one research topic will have to be your focus for at least four years of your life, so you may as well know you have an interest in it.