WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Each year we ask a graduate to write an article on his/her past and current activities since leaving Acadia. This year we invited Frank Dennis, who studied at Acadia from 1985-87.
I am a contaminated land "expert". Now the reason that people like me can make any money is that large companies with lots of land in various states of contamination want to do what is best for the environment and clean it up. Mmm, not exactly. There are lots of reasons for managing the quality of the land that you own. Socio-environmental awareness is only one of them. Whatever the reason, most companies with any kind of "legacy" contamination problem will have some kind of strategy for managing land quality on their sites. At the start of any investigation I ask my clients what they want the land for? What is its end use? Do they want it in a state fit for a Great Crested Newt habitat, or would they like to continue industrial operations on the site? The answer will help to define any clean-up criteria. So environmental consultants such as I, will prod and poke clients to proceed with the end clearly defined. After all you don't take a trip in a car without knowing where your final destination lies (at least not in the UK, gas is too expensive).
One's career is very similar: it's a journey. The difference is that although you may think that you know where you are going when you set off, I pretty much guarantee that you will be somewhere completely different by journey's end.
Let's take me, for example. I figured that I would learn a bit about rocks, do some prospecting and own a couple of gold mines by the time I was 30. Well, in reading the first sentence of this article you will have realised that my journey did not take me anywhere near where I thought I was headed when I set out.
I became interested in geology when one of my best friends, James MacEachern (who recently vis¬ited Acadia on a lecture tour as the GAC Hutchison Medal Winner) showed me some of the stuff that he was working on in Geology 100 at the University of Regina. You see, the Prairies (where I grew up) are so flat that I only really knew 2 dimensions: x and y. The sky (half of the z dimension) was usually blue with really not much to look at. So the introduction of the other half of the z dimension (i.e. what was underneath my feet) gave me a whole different perspective on the world and I was intrigued.
I completed my first degree in Regina and spent each summer in northern Saskatchewan fighting off flies but making much more money than any other student that I knew (first step on the road to the gold mines). I graduated in 1985 and wrote to Sandra Barr who, I had been informed by one of the faculty members at the university, was a great geologist. I was actually a bit surprised when she wrote to say that she had a MSc for me: Geology and Mineral¬isation of the Deep Cove Pluton, Cape Breton Island.
It's been said before, but I will say it again. I had a fantastic time at Acadia and I simply love the place. I haven't been back since 1988 but I think about it all the time. The school was great, the faculty were great, and my fellow classmates kept me fully entertained. I almost didn't complete my MSc degree and it took a stern lecture by Sandra to let me know that I was being just a bit too entertained and that it was time to buckle down and do a bit of work.
By the time I left Acadia, mining exploration was in the middle of a significant boom with the government giving a 166% tax write-off to investors who bought shares in exploration companies. Anybody who could even spell geology could get a job and it wasn't long before I found myself working in Quebec looking for that first gold mine. The boom times of course did not last (a word of warning: they never do) but I was lucky that I found a job with a mid-sized gold producer in the Abitibi before I ran completely out of luck.
I worked for a total of 5 years in Quebec and learned an amazing amount about geology, the mining industry, and most of all about myself. I had an opportunity to do the type of work that people in offices only dream of. I mapped (underground and above ground); I ran geophysical surveys; I super¬vised drilling operations (again from both above and below ground); I got to run around the woods all day in snow shoes; and I learned how to speak French. Coming from the Prairies, the latter was not one of my immediate priorities but as it turned out it was as useful as the geological knowledge that I gained.
The life of an exploration geologist is not an easy one though and after 5 years of working away from home for 9 months out of every 12, I realised two things: 1) I didn't really like living in the middle of nowhere; and 2) starting a family was going to be nigh-on impossible unless I changed careers. What my education and experiences had taught me was that I could do whatever I wanted (except find that elusive gold mine). I was smart, confident, and hey, bilingual so after reading up on financial management while sitting at a drill rig, I set off for Montreal to work at ScotiaMcLeod as a stockbroker. Not the best move that I ever made: the economy was crap at the time and, well, let's face it: I was a scientist, not a salesman.
In 1991 I decided not to make a minor change in my life but a major one and so I sold everything that I owned (surprisingly little) and headed back to the UK where I was born. I had heard about environmental geology and so I ditched the idea of owning the gold mines and thought that Shell could do with a decent Global Head of Environment (may as well aim high - again). I ended up doing a PhD at Reading University, working alongside famous geologists such as JRR Alan. It was great to be back at school and once again I had a ball. My research topic was the "Paleohydrogeology of the Chalk Aquifer - London" and on the first day in the "field" I drove past Buckingham Palace - result! Unfortunately my supervisor, John Andrews (great man), died just as I was starting to write my dissertation. I had already written a thesis at Acadia and drew heavily on that experience to write my PhD in 4 months.
I have had a number of jobs since I left Reading in the mid 1990's. Most of these have been in environmental consulting although I did work for 4 years directly for the UK Atomic Energy Authority at the Dounreay nuclear site on the north coast of Scotland where I was responsible for delivering environmental projects: contaminated land management, waste strategies, and finding a solution for the treatment of radioactive particles that had been released from the site. I am currently working for Golder Associates (a great Canadian company) where, inter alia, I manage contaminated land investigations at the UK's largest nuclear site.
A year ago I was invited to act as Technical Advisor to the International Atomic Energy Authority on the management of land at nuclear sites. It was the second time that I have worked for the UN: the first was in 1996 when I was engaged as Technical Advisor for a water quality study in Iran - by the way, if you get a chance to visit Iran, take it; the people are as friendly as they are in Nova Scotia.
In the past 10 years I have been able to work and travel extensively in Europe, Africa, and Asia. I have not ended up (physically, emotionally, or prof¬essionally) where I thought I would be when I started my geological journey 27 years ago but I am more than happy where I am. Geology is one of those disciplines that gives you the flexibility to be whatever you want to be. So study hard now and don't be afraid to step boldly onto your chosen career path!
On the personal side, I met and married a Spaniard while at Reading. Esther and I have two children: Miguel (9) and Iona (6). We spend a lot of time in Spain and plan to move there shortly. We all speak Spanish, the food is good, the wine is better, so why not. It will be the start of another adventure.
Senior Environmental Consultant
Golder Associates (UK) Ltd