March/April 2009

Student Life

Like a kid in the cookie aisle

By A. Cummings

A mineral processing student is excited by her prospects in the industry

The decision of what post-secondary school to attend is a big one. I thought long and hard, sought advice, and created many, many pro-con lists. Finally, I decided on Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, for its beautiful campus, its proud tradition and its strong reputation in the applied sciences. At the time, I had no idea of how exciting the general first year would be and how much it would impact my life.

In the mineral processing stream, I am now a part of the largest mining engineering class in North America. How did I get here? I don’t have family in the industry, I thought a hard hat would mess up my hair, and I had automatically written it off. However, I gave it a chance, and am glad I did. I feel right at home in the mining department. I am still warming to the hard hat, but I am extremely excited about the future.

When I jumped into mineral processing, I saw it as the perfect combination of chemistry and geology. While that is true, it is so much more. The challenges of the profession were quite theatrically illustrated by one of my professors, who brought bags of cookies to class and asked, “How are you going to get the chocolate chips out of this cookie?” As we crunched on our cookies, we related the cookie to a piece of ore. With this simple example, I realized that the problem at hand was quite challenging. I came to understand that a complicated sample of ore may cause me to struggle, but that the satisfaction of solving the problem and obtaining the minerals would be completely worth the struggle.

Mining and mineral processing clearly go hand in hand. Mining extracts the ore from the earth and mineral processing extracts from it the substances we use every day. Most people do not realize just how important mining and mineral processing are to the world. When I consider everything I do on a day-to-day basis — studying, cooking, driving, curling, turning on lights — it is shocking how little I think about the objects I use and where they came from. Everything I do has a mining and processing connection. Without pots and pans, vehicles, computers, stationery, light bulbs, etc., I would have a much harder time doing these things. Mining increases our quality of life dramatically.

The environmental controversy with mining is another aspect that makes it even more appealing. It is an ongoing challenge. The common perception that mining simply destroys the environment to make a profit is something that needs to change. The minerals extracted are essential to life and I think that it is important to find new ways to access them with a reduced impact on the earth. Additionally, mining is just one part of our endeavours in the world that has an ecological footprint and a profit motive. If we eliminated all profit-making industries that damaged the environment …. well, it is difficult to even imagine, isn’t it?

Similarly, I can’t imagine being anywhere else. I am happy where I am, at Queen’s, in mineral processing. When asked about my program, I used to resent the surprised reaction from people because it made me doubt my choice. Whether it was because I was a girl, grew up in an urban setting, favoured the colour pink, or simply because of the comparatively small size of the mineral processing program, surprise was people’s usual reaction. They expected me to reply with chemistry or geology as these are often disciplines females flock to — I had considered these options.

Within a few months of being a part of the mining department, with its stimulating courses, tight-knit student body and dedicated professors, I came to the conclusion that I had made the right decision. The world of mining and mineral processing has grabbed my attention and I love the fact that I have so much more to learn. Walking into class every day, I feel a bit like a little kid would in the cookie aisle — only my thoughts dwell less on the cookies and more on how to get at the chocolate chips!


Alison Cummings is a second-year mineral processing and economics student at Queen’s University. She is also on the Queen’s women’s varsity curling team. In her free time, Ali enjoys reading, running, water skiing and spending time with family and friends.

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