Mining the Future

Feb. 23, 2011

“Mom was home taking care of us and Dad was away. He was a geography teacher,” she says. “He was coming home from a trip one day and we had sat on the front porch waiting for him – for eight hours. When he finally arrived, we were so excited. He came up and gave me this shoebox of rocks. He had a story about each one. And it hooked me.”

From that moment on, Poulton saw rocks everywhere. She pounded aggregate out of the sidewalk in front of her house. She picked up rocks everywhere she went. When her family took vacations, she would fish mineral treasures out of the Illinois rivers. She came home with her pockets so heavy with rocks that her mom had to get her to empty out her clothes in the garage and clean her up before she was allowed back in the house.

Rocks were her connection to the places she had been. When you see her office shelves lined with samples she has collected across the years and from around the globe, it’s easy to see that they also are her present and future.

Today, Poulton loves the interdisciplinary nature of her work, teaching students, collaborating with industry, and coming up with practical solutions to real-world problems. “When it comes to studying the environment, geology, hydrology, engineering and health – and how they all interconnect – we do that better than anyone else,” she says of the UA.

Poulton uses a full range of tools to bring subject matter to life for her students. One of those tools is truly unique to the UA. The San Xavier Mining Laboratory about 23 miles south of Tucson is the only mining lab in the US with a working vertical shaft, and has four levels reaching a depth of 250 feet.

From the mine to the classroom, Poulton teaches her students to become what she calls “divergent problem-solvers” and use their multitasking abilities to solve the hard, integrated problems that face tomorrow’s engineers. “We’ve got to increase material supply for an increasing population, increase livelihoods to help alleviate poverty, and at the same time do all of that with a smaller environmental footprint.”

To be able to address these problems, Poulton knows that her students need to understand much more than mining or geological engineering. They need to have a working knowledge of community management, water management, and minimizing surface impact.

Teaching such complex subjects in real-world contexts requires the UA to partner closely with industry, which Poulton has worked hard to cultivate through leading efforts like the Lowell Institute for Mineral Resources. In working with corporations as partners instead of patrons, she says, business plays a key role in ensuring that curriculum and state-of-the-art practices stay closely linked and relevant. Such relationships not only ensure that students complete their educations with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed, but the students feel a true pride and ownership in the work they do while at the University.

With an expert mind, a true caring for her students and an eye for sustainability, Poulton continues to dedicate herself to both solving tomorrow’s problems, as well as preparing the next generation of expert leaders to follow in her footsteps.

Looking back, Poulton’s decision to pursue geology had its pitfalls. When she was young, women were discouraged from going into engineering fields. But with a brave spirit and an unquenchable passion (and a good push from a very special high school guidance counselor), Dr. Mary Poulton continues to be a force for learning, collaboration and leadership.

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