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High-Tech Job Keeps UA Senior on Solid Ground

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High-Tech Job Keeps UA Senior on Solid Ground

Sept. 4, 2014
Damian Watson had a hard time choosing a major until he found a way to merge his passions. Now the UA Engineering student uses big data to help improve operations at mines throughout North America.

Editor’s note: Part of The New Face of Mining celebration -- in which the University of Arizona is commemorating the 125th anniversary of the founding of the Arizona School of Mines -- this is one in a series of articles that follows six mining and geological engineering students through their internship journeys.

Photo above: This coal mining operation in British Columbia represents one stop in Damian Watson's internship travels. Below: Like Watson (top right in blue shirt), many of the employees at MISOM Technologies Inc. -- a company founded by UA associate professor Sean Dessureault (center back row) -- are drawn from the University of Arizona.

See All the UA Mining Engineering Intern Stories:

UA Students Ready to Get Real

Jamie Mills Builds Mining Life in Oahu 

Brothers Peter and Paul Mather Carving Niches 

Danielle Taran Texas Bound

Ashlyn Hooten Finds Opportunity at Every Turn

Damian Watson Merges Computers, Mining

Few mining engineering undergraduates work at consulting firms, let alone for above-market pay. Fewer still work at firms founded by their professors.

For the last two summers, UA senior Damian Watson has interned at Mining Information Systems and Operations Management Technologies Inc. MISOM is a Tucson-based start-up that provides high-tech services for the global mining industry. The company was founded by Sean Dessureault, UA associate professor of mining and geological engineering and director of the Mine Intelligence Research Group in the Lowell Institute for Mining Resources.

Watson will continue working at MISOM part-time throughout his senior year, and he figures his wide range of experience will help him decide where to go and what to do afterwards.

“Damian follows a long line of interns at both the graduate and undergraduate levels who ultimately work for MISOM’s clients or have joined our company,” said Canadian transplant Dessureault, an internationally recognized expert on mine automation and big data management.

Learning the Tools of the Trade

Watson’s work at MISOM includes collecting, analyzing and integrating information from sensors on equipment to help mines improve operations in areas such as equipment efficiency and mine safety.

“We take the readings from their equipment for data warehousing,” Watson said. “Then we create customized reports that our clients can access on their websites and mobile devices.”

Such information might measure loading activity at a mine site.

“A cable shovel’s bucket scoops up material, swings it over to a truck, and dumps it in, repeating the cycle until the truck is full,” Watson explained. “We can tell how far the shovel has swung, how long it took to swing, and how many bucketfuls it took to fill the truck. We can measure how long it took the truck, once filled, to travel as far as it needed and return. We can see the speeds at which it was moving when it was full and when it was empty. It’s really endless amounts of data. And that’s just one small example.”

The work requires Watson to apply an array of mathematical, statistical, and data-processing tools, many learned in his UA classes, such as timecode structures, pivot tables and predictive algorithms.

Visiting Mines from Canada to Mexico

MISOM has also developed customized mobile applications for iPads and iPhones that allow mine managers to quickly and easily input their observations during safety and other inspections on-site.

This summer, Watson visited one of three mines in British Columbia owned by Walter Energy, which has beta-tested and is now using MISOM’s mobile app, and worked with mine management to fix any glitches in the app’s implementation.

Along with other MISOM computer programmers and engineers, Watson discovered after his return to Tucson that the app was already improving safety at the mine.

“We reviewed two or three months’ data and found that their incident rate had decreased significantly after the app rolled out,” Watson said, explaining that the app gives supervisors a way to keep track of employees at all times.

“I think this mobility and instant submission, rather than paper-based documentation, has really helped a lot,” he said.

This summer, Watson also visited a new MISOM client -- the Timmins Gold Corp. San Francisco open-pit gold mine in Sonora, Mexico. He and his supervisor, project manager Pratt Rogers, met with mine managers, IT staff and mechanical engineers there to discuss setting up a data warehousing system.

“Damian is an excellent employee, always willing to take on new challenges,” said Rogers, who received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mining engineering from the University of Arizona in 2008 and 2012, respectively, and is now pursuing his doctorate.

“He has sound technical skills and is able to work with people from a variety of cultures -- excellent traits for an up-and-coming mining engineer!”

Far More than a Rock Hound

Versatility has always been key for Watson. In fact, it was difficult for him to settle on an engineering major until he realized there was a way to merge his love of math, computers and minerals.

“I’ve always been kind of a tech geek. I enjoy technology, numbers and statistics,” he said. “But before I came to the University I had never considered mining.”

While attending Arizona’s Chandler-Gilbert Community College in 2011, Watson, who initially considered electrical engineering, attended a “Meet Your Major” fair sponsored by the UA College of Engineering.

“Ever since that, and my first couple of mining classes, I’ve been hooked,” he said. “My first mining class was all about rocks. We learned everything there is to know about them: how they’re formed, how long they’ve been around, how they’ve moved across the planet over millions -- billions -- of years. I have always found all that really fascinating.”

Settling into a Great Fit

As he did in the UA’s mining and geological engineering department, Watson found in MISOM a great fit to pursue his passions for both ancient rocks and technology.

“It’s really cool to apply advanced technology in a field that is not necessarily known for being tech-savvy,” he said. “When you think mining, you think miners; you think dirty work; and, sometimes, you think inefficiency. But in this line of work, you see that technology plays a much larger role than you might expect. As the new face of mining goes, technology is becoming more and more prevalent.”

If his start at MISOM is any indication, Watson’s adaptability -- coupled with an exceptional work ethic, according to his supervisors -- is likely to take him far in his engineering career, whatever the direction.

“Sean Dessureault once told me that he got to where he is by gaining as much knowledge about as many different things as he possibly could,” Watson said. “I don’t want to limit myself to just one focus when there are so many areas in engineering, and mining and business.”

In picture at top, Damian Watson gets a feel for springtime in Canada while visiting a mining client.