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Pure gold

Geologist Keith Barron, PhD’97, is helping position Western as the premier institution for economic geology

by Debora Van Brenk, BA'86, MA'87 | June 27, 2017

Modern-day treasure hunter and geologist Keith Barron, PhD’97, has helped position Western as the premier institution for economic geology thanks to his gift to establish the Robert W. Hodder Chair in Economic Geology and his ongoing involvement and support.

When you think about the modern-day treasure hunter, erase from your mind any image of the wild-eyed prospector with a fedora, pickaxe and a Sisyphean hunch.

Geologist Keith Barron – who doesn’t even own a fedora, although he has a hard-working collection of Panama hats made in Ecuador — is a case in point.

With more than three decades invested in exploration in 18 countries, the current Chairman and CEO of Aurania Resources Ltd. said the rags-to-riches mining tale is improbably rare among today’s explorers.

“The public loves Horatio Alger stories but, you know, I didn’t go to university for nothing. I believe I learned something from all of this,” said Barron, PhD’97, gesturing to a neat array of geology books and research reports on a desk and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in his downtown Toronto offices. “This is how we do exploration. It’s not hit-and-miss and it’s not like playing the lotto or anything like that.”

The big discoveries, like his former team’s 2006 finding of Fruta del Norte – Ecuador’s largest gold deposit — come from a professional team conducting and interpreting highly technical surveys, core samples and assays. It required teamwork and about $13 million, noted Barron, for Aurelian Resources (a company he co-founded in 2001) to get to the world-class discovery stage.

But, the payoff for current property owner Lundin Gold and the country will be enormous: by the time the site is operational in late 2019, the mine will extract 400,000 ounces of gold per year and employ 400 to 500 people — ultimately accounting for an astounding three per cent of Ecuador’s Gross Domestic Product.

It might not have happened at all, believes Barron, if not for a series of events that included meeting the late Western Geology professor Robert Hodder at a conference of the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum in 1985.

At the time, Hodder was a working geologist and renowned scholar. He urged Barron to come to Western for a visit. “He spent the whole day with me and we toured the university together,” Barron recalled.

Barron was accepted into the Master’s program but was soon working towards his PhD. He popped in and out of the university during the following decade — away, when work as a geologist called and then back at the school when he had earned enough money to fund his studies. At the 10-year mark, the department secretary tracked him down in Kazakhstan to let him know he was coming up to his last academic deadline.

“So I decided to hustle my way back to Western. When I read what I had written in my PhD thesis, I didn’t like any of it except for the introductory chapter, so I tossed it all. I threw it away and wrote the whole thing from scratch — it took me five weeks.”

Barron has spent the years since exploring: in South Africa for diamonds; in Kazakhstan for base metals; in Australia for gold; and in Argentina for uranium.

Even though Western is geographically far from his home in Switzerland, it is also far from forgotten. He wears his Western necktie with pride, and a glass Professional Achievement Award from Western Alumni holds a prominent place in his office.

In 2009, out of concern that the study of geology at Western was at a critical crossroads, Barron donated $1.2 million to establish the Robert W. Hodder Chair in Economic Geology.

Before the chair was established, Barron and other geology alumni expressed worry that academic retirements and a proposed change in direction would mean a decline in the study of the discipline at Western. The Bre-X Minerals fraud (a Calgary-based company’s gold “discovery” in Indonesia) had also done no favours to those in the profession or those hoping to train for it.

Barron and other Canadian geologists redoubled their efforts to show that solid research trumped a fast buck, and they began a campaign to persuade administration to strengthen the study of economic geology. Or, in Barron’s less diplomatic words, “I raised holy hell, I sure did.”

The chair makes Western the premier institution in Canada where students can pursue an undergraduate program in economic geology, leading to becoming a professional geoscientist.

Barron has helped reinvigorate both the focus and financial health of the study of Geology and Earth Sciences at Western, said Robert Linnen, who holds the Robert W. Hodder Chair in Economic Geology.

“It’s not only money. He donates his time, in giving guest lectures, mobilizing alumni, mentoring students, offering expertise and helping forge strong connections with industry partners. He speaks to students about the importance of rigorous research, the value of entrepreneurship and the risk and potential of economic geology. He is an incredible inspiration to our students.”

Barron has been a huge ally: intellectually, financially and strategically, Linnen said. “He’s the complete package.”

According to Linnen, much of Canada’s economy is based on the discovery, extraction and use of mineral deposits. “People in Toronto don’t realize this. Londoners don’t realize this. Canadians generally don’t recognize this … It’s a huge economic driver.”

Barron echoed Linnen’s point as he scanned his office, noting his camera, cellphone and windows all required mineral extraction.

He said exploration and mining have been a cornerstone of the Canadian economy — with giants such as Seymour Schulich, Pierre Lassonde, Rob McEwen and Peter Munk having made their marks nationally and internationally.

Training new geologists remains key to a vibrant resource-discovery and resource-development industry, he added.

Increasingly, resource scientists have to analyze data, juggle complex details of geography, topography and geology, use more sophisticated scanning tools and learn the nuances of the ground beneath their feet.

And, large as the Fruta del Norte discovery may be, Barron is now aiming for something even bigger: the famed Lost Cities of Gold, which he believes lie under property he owns elsewhere in the Ecuadoran jungle. That search (see the fall 2017 issue of the Western Alumni Gazette for more) is the product of geological and archival research that stretches halfway around the globe.

“Prof. Hodder used to say to me, ‘You have to plan for luck.’”

For more information, or to support the Faculty of Science, please contact Paula Luchak, Director of Development, Faculty of Science (519.661.2111 ext. 86642 or paula.luchak@uwo.ca) or visit extraordinary.westernu.ca.  


This article appeared in the Summer 2017 edition of Impact Western
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