Carolyn Relf

Carolyn is currently the director of the Yukon Geological Survey. YGS is one of Canada's top-ranked geological surveys, carrying out research that ranges from mapping the geology of Yukon's mountain ranges, unraveling its glacial history, studying active earthquake zones, understanding permafrost, and providing information that supports the discovery of Yukon's mineral and energy resources.

Originally from southern Ontario, she earned a B.Sc. from Queen's University, an M.Sc. from Memorial University, and a Ph.D. from Queen's. For her Ph.D. she participated in a project mapping ancient rocks in western Nunavut, resolving their 3-dimensional geometry and determining the history of how they formed over time. She has spent over 20 summers participating in or leading mapping projects, and has had opportunities to mentor students and supervise thesis projects. In 1997 she was appointed chief geologist for NWT, and took on the responsibility of managing the overall geoscience program for the territory. Managing people and supporting their work reduced the amount of time she was able to spend in the field; on the other hand it allowed her to spend more time with her new daughter, so the change was a good fit.

Carolyn joined the Yukon Geological Survey in January 2008, and has a steep learning curve to become knowledgeable about Yukon's complex geology. She is looking forward to the challenge of working in a new region of Canada.

Q: What is the title of your job and what do you do?

A: Director, Yukon Geological Survey
There are 26 permanent staff at YGS and their jobs range from doing scientific research to providing advice to prospectors, placer miners and exploration companies. Research activities include mapping rocks and interpreting how they formed; mapping the sand/gravel deposits left behind by glaciers; studying mineral deposits; examining sedimentary rocks to determine whether they contain oil or natural gas; and studying natural hazards such as land slides and earthquakes. Some of our staff are dedicated to managing the information we collect and distributing it as maps, reports, and brochures. This requires expertise in GIS (geographic information systems), web programming, and graphic design.

My role as director is to provide support to the staff who carry out this work, helping them find resources (money, assistance) to do their research and ensuring that their work serves the needs of the various groups of people we serve (our clients include geologists exploring for minerals or oil and gas, the general public, schools, First Nations governments, and university researchers). I spend a lot of my time with staff: visiting them in the field (where I can learn about their research), and working with them in the office (where I try to cover some of their administrative duties to allow them to do "real" work). I also spend a lot of time at meetings where I represent YGS and share information on our activities: in some cases it's to provide advice to the people responsible for making decisions about how to manage Yukon lands; other times it's to discuss research priorities for the Geological Survey.

Q: Who do you work for, and where are you based?

A: I work for the Government of Yukon, based in Whitehorse

Q: What kind of hours/shifts do you work?

A: I generally work 8:30 to 6:00 Monday to Friday. Though I try to leave work at work, I usually bring home an hour or two of work a couple times a week in order to stay on top of things.

Q: Where do you work?

A: Office most of the time, with occasional trips to the field

Q: What equipment/machinery do you use?

A: I use a computer for my regular day job.

When I get into the field the use of equipment really varies, depending on the location of the project and the nature of the work:

  • we use helicopters, ATV's, float planes and trucks to get around in the field
  • we use rock hammers to sample rocks and shovels to sample glacial sediments
  • we use compasses, GPS (global positioning systems), and hand-held computers to navigate and collect field data
  • we use two-way radios and satellite phones to communicate
  • at mine sites or at exploration camps there are various requirements for safety equipment (hard hats, steel toes, etc)
  • a colleague and I recently did some sampling for natural gas and were required to use an instrument designed to detect the presence of poisonous gas

Q: What education or training is required for your job?

A: My training can be divided into 3 categories:

  • formal education: consisted of 3 degrees in geoscience (B.Sc., M.Sc., Ph.D.)
  • management training: this includes on-the-job courses in financial management, employee relations, effective
  • communication. Some of these courses are really useful, and others feel like they're part of a Dilbert cartoon.
  • field safety training: every year we take a number of field safety courses to stay certified for first aid, firearms, bear safety, helicopter hover exit training, etc.

Q: What kind of personal traits do you recommend for this profession?

A: Flexibility: Our research priorities shift in response to several factors, and technologies for managing digital information are constantly evolving. To keep up with these changes, we need to continually develop new skills and knowledge, and I've learned that it's easiest to adapt if you're flexible.

Respect: a lot of the work I've done has involved teamwork, and it's critical to respect the strengths of everyone and recognize that differences in peoples' skills, background, and perspectives can be positive.

Communication: I've learned that most conflicts result from poor communication rather than any real underlying disagreement. Communicating regularly helps deflect problems before they spiral out of control.

Humour: there's lots of stuff out there to laugh about and a workplace that enjoys a laugh now and then is a good place to work.

Q: What is the salary range of your job?

A: $90,000 to $120,000

Q: What do you like best about your job?

A: The variety of things I'm exposed to. I get to see some of our field research first-hand, visit active exploration sites and operating mines, and interact with people from universities, governments, industry, and northern communities.

Q: What are the advancement opportunities for this career?

A: I've had lots of opportunities for advancement. Much of it was luck; being in the right place at the right time. Moving into management has meant giving up field work and not being able to run my own projects; however, there have been other rewards.

Q: How physically demanding is your job?

A: Because I don't do much field work any more I'd say the most physically demanding part of the job is travelling. Working in different time zones can be tiring, and in order to not get behind at the office I usually have to work evenings and/or weekends to keep on top of things.

Q: Why did you choose this career?

A: I had a teacher in high school who was an ex-geologist and who taught an optional geology course for grade 12 students. The course included a week-long field trip which was rumoured to be the most fun high school field trip ever (i.e. party.). I signed up for the course and was hooked on the subject because he was a fantastic teacher.

Q: What is your most memorable moment/event/place related to your experience as an Earth scientist?

A: Watching a mother grizzly bear and her two cubs checking out a zodiac boat we'd parked on the shore of a lake. My field partner and I were on our way back to camp at the end of long day mapping and were almost at the boat when we spotted them. The mother checked out the boat first, then let the cubs play in it. They chewed on the life jackets, destroyed a pair of rubber boots we'd left in the boat, and bounced on the pontoons. We were nervous that they'd puncture the pontoons and scare themselves (potentially putting mom into a rage and attacking us; not to mention we'd have a long walk back to camp) - however, they didn't do any damage to the boat and the mother didn't seem concerned about us. After a little while they got bored and wandered off. Not many people get to witness things like that.

Q: What is your advice to newcomers?

A: Ask lots of questions and get as much out of your experience as you can.

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