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Making Milestones: Outputting the future of mineral exploration

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From moving to a new country at the beginning of COVID-19 to facing the unique challenges of a non-traditional geoscience project, Taryn has taken on everything thrown her way with the passion and drive to succeed.  

Taryn Scharf is completing a PhD with the Timescales of Mineral Systems research group at Curtin co-supervised by Associate Professor Milo Barham, Professor Chris Kirkland and Dr. Vladimir Puzyrev. Taryn and Milo reflect on what it’s like to work on a non-traditional geoscience project, staying motivated in the face of roadblocks and the highlights of doing a PhD.


I completed my Bachelor of Science in South Africa, majoring in geology and chemistry. This gave me the opportunity to pursue a Master of Science in geology, where I studied the rates at which landscapes were eroding, using a technique called cosmogenic nuclide analysis. I then worked as a consultant in the mining industry for seven years and that’s where I got into data analytics. I always kept my eye open for PhDs, but I was looking for something particular; I wanted a PhD that was tied to industry and which had a heavy data analytics and programming component.

I saw this PhD advertised on Earthworks. It was at a time where I wanted a career change and knew I wanted to be involved in this type of work. But I was thinking, “I’m never going to get into a PhD because it’s seven years after my master, and I’ve been told that nobody hires older PhD students.” It was on the closing date of the application that I thought to myself, “It doesn’t really matter if you get selected or not, you should at least apply and actively pursue this dream.” I sent in my application and much to my surprise, I was contacted for an interview.

My PhD research applies geo-computing to the deconvolution of mineral grain histories. In my research I look at a particular mineral, called zircon, which is used ubiquitously in geoscience. Zircon is useful for geologists because it’s a “geochronometer”, which means we can determine the age of the mineral. It is also incredibly durable, so it survives long after rocks have been weathered away to form sand. Zircon ages can help us understand the age of the rocks that the zircons are in, and when zircon is found in sand, it can give us important clues about which rocks the sands were derived from.

This information helps us understand how Earth’s crust and landscapes have changed over time. As such, we have massive historical data sets of zircon age, chemistry, information about the rocks that they came from, as well as images of these minerals. What geoscience had been realising and what my team had previously been working on, is how we could use the physical characteristics of zircon to better interpret the history of these minerals.

I specifically look at the physical characteristics of the mineral – its shape and texture – and try to integrate that with chemistry and age information using various data analytics techniques so that we can get tighter constraints on what type of rock the zircon came from. I’m essentially looking for a type of “fingerprint” that can tell source rocks apart. I aim to develop a technique or a tool that other geologists can use.

I sit in the intersection of many different spheres: geoscience, mathematics, statistics and programming.

Because this project is a non-traditional geoscience project, there is not a lot of preceding work in this area, so there is not yet an accepted “best-practice” workflow or methodology with which to tackle this project. A lot of the problems we’re encountering have not been documented in this area.

Sometimes when we seem to be a bit stuck I have said to my supervisors: “We don’t know if this is going to work and we’re running short on time, we could use more traditional methods to try and answer some of these questions”. One of my biggest challenges has been overcoming self-doubt and believing that I have the skills, the insight and the drive to overcome scientific challenges, as well as be brave enough to try something new and see what happens.

The fact that we made it this far is an achievement. Most of my PhD has been building computational tools to interpret data and it’s been quite a modular progression. That means I’d been developing tools for nearly 3 years before we could even apply them to the real world. Now, everything has come together and created the project outputs. Hopefully in a month’s time we’ll have a great final project result.

The whole experience of the PhD is quite transformative. It changes the way you think and how you relate to yourself. It was an overall life-changing experience to leave my country and everything I knew to embark on this journey. With the covid pandemic starting just after I arrived, I had to put my faith in people that I didn’t know, whom I had just met, to face some very stressful challenges. In the end we pulled through, and I also proved to myself that I am up to the challenge. That’s the highlight of my PhD.


Before Taryn joined us we had been dabbling in this research space but in a much more rudimentary fashion based on the tools we had available. It was a simple process in terms of where the problems would be and what we could use it to solve. Taryn has come in and been able to revolutionise the approach. She’s giving us more powerful tools to be able to access information on these mineral grains to track Earth’s history and understand fundamental geological processes that are meaningful for mineral exploration.

It was a very easy choice in terms of talent selection. It’s quite an unusual PhD role, in that we wanted someone with geoscience understanding and computational skill. We had these ideas that were valuable to pursue but we needed someone with that skillset that was going to be able to tackle them. This was an industry-partnered project and we knew that Taryn’s previous industry experience was going to work out nicely. Taryn clearly demonstrated her capabilities and she came very highly recommended.

As a supervisor, I try to be friendly and open with the students. I don’t like to have any sort of hierarchy and barriers that make it seem like I’m unapproachable. I always try and listen to their thoughts but I know communication can be challenging at times. It is very rewarding to be able to help guide a student’s development and I feel tremendously fortunate that the students are facilitating an exploration that I have an interest in but one I wouldn’t be capable of doing myself, either because of the skillsets they’ve developed, the expertise they’ve honed or just the time limitations that I have.

It’s a very privileged position to have, to be engaging with students that are capable and who are driving things forward.

The biggest challenge, from my perspective, would be helping the students through the frustrations of hitting these barriers of complexity and learning how to deal with them. At what point do we accept that a challenge represents an unknown that we cannot fully solve but can sufficiently resolve to tell the story that we need to? How much do we keep digging to try and resolve an issue?

Some of the achievements are probably things that Taryn is doing completely independently of her supervisors, and her ability to communicate effectively. You can see this in the three-minute thesis competition or awards at other conferences for presentations, or every time we have a meeting with industry partners and the presentation she gives there. We can’t take any credit for those achievements in terms of that communication ability and the articulation of ideas.

Taryn has taught me a lot. Since she has been on the project, I feel more confident listening to and understanding computational concepts. Even in terms of my supervising – I’m more cognisant of how I approach and interact with my students and their perspectives. Supervising Taryn helped me get a broader perspective on how people approach problems differently.

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