May 2010

The tie that binds

CIM award winner’s passion reaches beyond retirement

By R. Pillo

For his outstanding contributions to the mineral exploration industry, Alastair Sinclair received the Selwyn Blaylock Medal in 2009, one of CIM’s most prestigious awards. Whether on campus, at camp or in a laboratory, this eminent scholar has spent most of his forty-year career strengthening the industry and ensuring its future.

As a teenager, Sinclair never gave geology a thought. “I was never the kind of person who collected rocks and knew from day one this is what I wanted to be,” he recalls. The introduction came later while Sinclair was still in high school. One of his good friends, Don Coates, had just entered his first year of mining engineering and would later become one the industry’s most well know academics.

Sinclair obtained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geological engineering from the University of Toronto and his PhD in economic geology from the University of British Columbia (UBC); moving from one degree to the next without skipping a beat. He had given some thought to working in between his graduate degrees, but discarded the idea. He worried he would get engrossed in the business and neglect the rewards that a career in research would bring him. “The question became whether I would emphasize one or the other,” he says. “I chose academia because it provided me with the opportunity to do both.”

Throughout his career, Sinclair established a fine balance between the two, concentrating his research on resource estimation and data analysis, and consulting on the same topic. Keeping his ties with the industry is what this scholar strived for and achieved, an importance instilled in him by his mentor and former university professor Bill Gross. “I wanted to have a similar career; he was a role model for me,” he says fondly.

Sinclair briefly worked at the University of Washington before returning to his alma mater as a professor. “I jumped at the chance to come back, I couldn’t believe my good luck,” he admits. “My aim was to work in an important mineral exploration centre such as Vancouver.”

From 1985 to 1990, Sinclair was head of UBC’s Department of Geological Sciences, where he was involved in many initiatives, including the formation of the Mineral Deposit Unit (MRDU) with colleague Peter Bradshaw. The first of its kind in Canada, the unit successfully paired companies with graduate students with similar research interests. The idea stemmed from looking at comparable programs in Australia.

“We thought it was time that such a strong exploration oriented country such as Canada should have a similar program available,” he explains. “The aim was to produce a cooperative unit that would benefit both sides, providing students with the research funding they need and the companies with immediate impacts through the latest research.” Over the years, the unit has grown to include up to 25 students, with tremendous support from various companies.

Consulting on several mineral exploration projects, Sinclair realized early in his career that the many different estimation methods used in the industry resulted in very different estimates. He focused his research on comparative studies of the diverse methodologies used, and which was most suitable or unsuitable for a particular type of deposit. 

He also looked at standardizing the sampling protocol in obtaining a high quality assay, which was sometimes ignored. “Some sampling methods are very inappropriate for certain types of deposits,” he explains. “Even to this day, inappropriate methods are commonly used, though not nearly as widely as they used to be.”

These issues lead Sinclair to co-author, with colleague Garston Blackwell, Applied Mineral Inventory Estimation. Published in 2002, the book took a conceptual approach to resource estimation, methodologies used and the limitations of different methods.

Now semi-retired, Sinclair continues his work, offering a number of web-based short courses, as part of a joint Infomine-UBC graduate certificate. “I am not one of those retirees who can just quit cold turkey what I have been doing for my entire professional life. It is an integral part of who I am.”

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