Innovators in Geology Series

Interview with Nuri Uzunlar, South Dakota School of Mines

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

In a time of increased digitalization, having contact with the actual, real-life counterpart is more important than ever, especially as we seek a better understanding of rock properties, structure, regional geology, and geochemical processes such as diagenesis. Welcome to an interview with Nuri Uzunlar, Ph.D., South Dakota School of Mines.

What is your name, current position and your background?
Nuri Uzunlar
Nuri Uzunlar

My name is Nuri Uzunlar, I was born and raised in one of the most beautiful and pristine parts of the world on the edge of the Garden of Eden on the Black Sea coast in Trabzon, Turkey. I was Born in 1960 and grew up in a small village in the heart of an island arc complex with 17,000 foot tall granitic spires. I graduated with honors from Black Sea University with a B.S. in geology and geological engineering in 1981. I came to South Dakota School of Mines and Technology (SDSM&T) to study gold deposits in 1984 and earned a PhD from SDSM&T in 1993. From 1984 to 2001, I worked as a consulting exploration geologist for number of companies including Homestake Mining Co., Cominco and Anglo American Corp., looking for gold and base metals in more than 12 countries including the USA, Canada, Mexico and Turkey. I was VP of exploration for a mid-size private mining company for eight years before I returned to SDSM&T in 2001 in an effort to turn North America’s largest gold mine, Homestake, into an underground science and engineering laboratory, which was a worthy and successful effort. I was appointed in 2006 as the full-time director of the Black Hills Natural Sciences Field Station, which at that time was only offering geology and geological engineering field camps in the Black Hills, South Dakota.

How did you become interested in geology?

That’s a much longer story than I have space for here. My father was a stone mason and we operated a small granite quarry where we hand drilled small blast holes and set small charges to break desired blocks of rock for arched fireplaces. I was nine years old when I discovered almost gem quality skarn minerals in small opening near the quarry which were only visible during a certain time of the day when the sun would shine directly into the opening. I could see the crystals, but they were beyond my reach. So, one day I decided to drop a small stick of dynamite in the opening. That was the last time I saw those crystals, but my search and curiosity continued until I took a geology course in high school. That was when I decided to become a geologist - a field geologist.

What makes field geology special to you? Why should geologists spend time in the field?

Field geology – specifically field camp – should be a requirement for all geology majors. It’s a lifetime experience for students. Students often comment that they learned more in five weeks in the field than they learned four years at school. If you ask retired geologists, they’ll testify that field camp was best time of their learning career. The field is where people start communicating with rocks or geologic features. You learn to speak to rocks in the field. As a geologist, I can’t drive by an outcrop without silently making up a story about it in my mind. You can’t help from wondering what the rock is, why it’s there, and how it got there. And you’ll have answers for all those questions in the next minute or so until you get to the next outcrop, road cut, hillside, or mountain. The field is where geologists see in 3D, and in geology, you need to see and think in 3D to enjoy the Earth’s work and solve its puzzles. It’s satisfying, and dare I say fun (at the risk of frustrating some students) when you solve challenges and find answers, even if they aren’t correct all the time.

Please describe the field camp that you lead. Where is it? What do people study?

I have led multiple field camps since 2001, including a traditional six credit camp in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Montana, Turkey, Morocco and Spain. In addition to traditional field camps, I’ve developed and now offer 20+ field camps annually including volcanology (Hawaii, Iceland and the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador), depositional systems (western California and New Zealand), environmental, ground water, hydrology, petroleum, and short three credits mapping camps during the winter in Death Valley and Arizona. The figure below shows our current camp locations. Students learn to map a variety of terrains in our traditional field camps.

While our specialty camps are shorter, students focus on specific areas of field geology. In Iceland, Hawaii, or Ecuador, they’ll map volcanic features, while the camp in the Himalayas is focused on tectonics and glacial geomorphology. Students go to New Zeeland to study depositional systems in the Teranaki basin. Other specialty camps, such as the petroleum, environmental, and groundwater field camps are run from the home base in the Black Hills.

What have you done during times of COVID-19?

In March, most of the colleges and universities shuttered their doors, sent their students home and transitioned many of the face-to-face classroom courses to fully online classes so their students could complete the semester. To most students, field camp is a life-changing experience as they live in shared accommodations with other fellow students and faculty for five to six weeks learning about rocks, life, and everything in between. As the pandemic progressed, nearly all these camps were canceled or rescheduled at first, and then ultimately canceled. However, there remained a strong demand for students who needed to complete their 3- to 6-credit field geology capstone to complete their degree. Naturally, we wanted to help our students. So, we began on a 5-month-long mission to build a course and assess its logistical and academic viability.

We decided on a hybrid course, divided into 14 online course days immediately preceding the 15-day in-person field camp. Each of the 14 online days featured a new topic with a virtual exercise to complete. Overall, it took more than 30 students, seven instructors, the field station director and administrative staff from South Dakota Mines to make this course a successful reality. Following the 14-day online module, 30 students from a number of universities arrived to the Black Hills for 15 back-to-back field days. Evenings and some days were utilized for map preparation and report writing. All students were monitored for two weeks after they departed for their home state. All reported good health after the two weeks waiting period.

Please tell us about your field trips and field camp.

The department of Geology and Geological Engineering at SDSM&T offers annual spring field trips during spring break in early March. I’ve been participating in and leading some of the trips since 1984. My first trip in the winter of 1985 was to the Grand Canyon, where we started the drive on a cold Friday afternoon from Rapid City, SD, into a blizzard in Wyoming, and arrived two days later and camped on the north rim. We woke up to two inches of snow on our tents and hiked to the bottom of the canyon to soak our feet in Colorado river on high noon at 85 degrees in the shade. Our field trips are designed so that every other year is to an international destination. I have organized or helped organize spring break trips to Turkey, Spain, New Zealand, Hawaii, and Death Valley. I plan on future trips to Patagonia-Chile, Galapagos Islands-Ecuador, High Atlas Mountains -Morocco, Pyrenees-Spain and Southern French Alps.

Please recommend a few books

I like roadside geology books, and I always carry one for whichever state I’m travelling through. My favorite ones are:

  • Roadside Geology of South Dakota by Paul Gries
  • Roadside Geology of Montana by Don Hyndman and Robert Thomas
  • Roadside Geology of Wyoming by David Lageson

Then of course there’s the bible of field geology, Geology in the Field by Robert Compton.

What Can I Do?

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