PhD Student, Mineral Processing, Milly Owens @camillalowens: A Day in the GeoLife Series

NAME:  Milly Owens

CURRENT TITLE:  PhD Student at Camborne School of Mines (CSM), University of Exeter (2015-present)

AREA OF EXPERTISE:  Mineral Processing, Rare Earth Elements

EDUCATION:  BSc in Physics from the University of Southampton (2010-2013), MSc in Volcanology from the University of Bristol (2013-2014). Studentship at the United States Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory on Kilauea Volcano (2015).

TWITTER: @camillalowens

mineral processing

Milly Owens processing rock samples.Photo copyright: Milly Owens

What’s your job like?

Fantastic! I don’t really see it as a job. It’s more like being paid to conduct research I find really interesting. My PhD is investigating improvements to mineral processing of rare earth element (REE) ores. REEs are vital to green and renewable technologies. They are present in everything from wind turbines to iPhones. Improving the processing will improve the environmental sustainability of mining rare earth elements. By the end of my project, I hope to have improved the processing of the Songwe Hill REE deposit in Malawi, Africa. As my samples have already been collected (and delivered on a very exciting day in February), the bulk of my work is focused on conducting experiments on the samples and interpreting the results. As well as conducting research, I also help out as a teaching assistant on a number of different courses and regularly lend a hand on outreach days in local schools.

What’s your typical day like?

No matter where I am, I always start with at least two cups of coffee and gradually substitute it with tea the later I get in the day. One of the things I enjoy about a PhD is that it’s very varied. This often means that my timetable is massively different every day. I could be at a conference, training course or using instruments at collaborating institutions. When I am in Cornwall, I could be helping out with classes at CSM, popping up to Exeter Streatham or writing an abstract for a conference — it really depends on what’s coming up. During the last couple of weeks, I have been preparing for a conference and have spent most of my time writing and reading papers. As my research is mainly laboratory (lab) based, I usually spend at least a couple of hours in the mineral processing lab each day. From the PhD office, this always involves a very amusing walk past a large number of freezers with biological specimens (often crickets).

Milly Owens

Grinding ore at the mineral processing lab at Camborne School of Mines. Photo copyright: Milly Owens

What’s fun?

The variety! There are so many things that are fun, from learning about new software or techniques to implementing tests in the lab. I often get excited by the thought that no one has conducted some of the experiments before. Even more exciting is that no one knows what the answer is going to be until the results come in.

What’s challenging?

Waiting for results. You can often get delayed or tests fail when conducting experiments. When you are so keen to analyse the results, it can be difficult being patient. However, when the results come through, it easily makes up for any delays.

What’s your advice for students?

Pick a subject you find really interesting. It doesn’t have to be love at first sight, but enjoying yourself is key to staying motivated and having fun. Always try new things. You might not know you love something unless you give it a go.


Milly Owens on fieldwork in Guatemala. Photo copyright: Milly Owens

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